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Practice drone run in West Texas could mean a future with better medical access for rural patients

US-67 North from Presidio in Presidio County toward Marfa and north toward Ector County and the Permian Basin.
Gabriel C. Pérez
Texas Standard
US-67 North from Presidio in Presidio County toward Marfa and north toward Ector County and the Permian Basin.

Local officials in Presidio, Texas, hope an Australian company will be able to help expand health care access in the area.

A company called Swoop Aero has made waves recently transporting life-saving vaccines, medications and test samples in underserved areas of sub-Saharan Africa. And recently, the company tested out a drone that delivered medical supplies to a clinic in West Texas.

Sam Karas, a reporter for The Big Bend Sentinel, said this company could be a step toward better medical access in the region, where the small border town of Presidio is the only port town between El Paso and Del Rio/Eagle Pass.

“We’re super remote, and we’re very medically underserved. A large percentage of our population is either on Medicaid or uninsured below the poverty line. So there’s really not a lot of access to health care,” she said. “It’s about an hour and a half ambulance ride for anybody to go to the hospital. So we’ve been working for the past couple of years on improving access to health care and improving that quality. But it’s kind of touch-and-go, and it’s been pretty slow.”

Karas said there was a sample run with a drone earlier this month.

“Part of the issue that the drone company was having is that our landscape is so much more complex than they’re used to dealing with,” Karas said. “So based on FAA regulations and just the technology of the drone itself, they have to use the rail corridor. But again, because it’s West Texas, it’s really windy and mountainous. So it was something that the drone company had never dealt with before.”

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However, Karas said despite the kinks left to work out, there was an atmosphere of excitement around the first drone run – and that officials hope it’s going to be the wave of the future.

“In Presidio, you had to have medications and samples driven by a person between Alpine and Fort Stockton and Presidio. So for a while you might have to wait weeks for either your medications or your labs to come in,” she said. “And that’s slowly changing. But they’re hoping that eventually, if the drone technology were implemented, that we could have multiple flights of medications and multiple opportunities for samples to be dropped off every day.”

Swoop Aero employees said that West Texas terrain presents new challenges from other international markets where they have set up operations.

“It’s a really, really unique situation for them. So it’s kind of an exciting challenge for this particular company,” Karas said. “It was really cool to be, you know, in my little small town in sort of the middle of nowhere and have these folks from Australia come in and really take the time to understand the community’s needs.”

Karas said that there is no timeline on this yet, but the result could be hugely impactful for locals when the drone runs become more regular.

“This is in very, very experimental stages. It’s part of a consortium that’s based at Texas Tech University. So they’re really testing out how to get funding. At the moment, these projects in their experimental stage are being funded privately, but they’re hoping to eventually work it so that they’ll be eligible for state and federal funding as well,” she said. “We hope that it results in happier, healthier people able to get the same quality of medical care that folks in big cities in Texas also get to enjoy.”

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Copyright 2023 KUT News. To see more, visit KUT News.

Sarah Asch