How one firm is quashing fears of drones by showing their benefits

Later this week, Flirtey drones will ferry medical samples for emergency testing between an onshore site at Cape May, New Jersey and a test facility aboard a ship off the coast.

LEWES, DE: Drone delivery service Flirtey is setting out to quash the public’s fear of drones by showing that they can be used to deliver pre- and post-disaster relief.

Flirtey plans to conduct the first ship-to-shore drone flight Thursday — an effort being overseen in part by Ryan Media Lab, a drone communications firm headquartered in Delaware with an office in Washington, D.C.

Launched by CEO Mark Ryan and his son, Kyle Ryan, a partner in the firm, as a media specialty called Seespan, the firm began work in drone communications in 2014 when their interest in the technology "took off."

Public safety concerns over drones prompted companies like Flirtey in the nascent industry to seek out PR pros and integrate public affairs communications into their strategy. In the U.S., where drone delivery is still banned by the Federal Aviation Administration, the goal of PR pros is to allay any lingering fears and demonstrate the public benefit the industry can bring, Mark Ryan explained.

During Thursday’s demonstration, Flirtey drones will ferry medical samples for emergency testing between an onshore site at Cape May, New Jersey and a test facility aboard a ship off the coast, according to a statement. It will also deliver medical supplies from the ship to the onshore facility.

But the demonstration is also meant to demystify this burgeoning piece of technology and industry and appeal it to the public. This means building a coalition of ambassadors and advocates.

"No one organization can move public opinion by itself, and at the end of the day, it’s about moving public opinion," Mark Ryan said. "That is essential to building support and advancing the industry. Because of our public communications experience, we thought we’d be well-suited for [this]."

The demonstration is taking place at the Field Innovation Team’s Do Tank, an event that brings together different groups to come up with new disaster solutions. This week’s Do Tank focuses on "Drones in Disaster" and will host the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance.

A variety of players are supporting the flight, including the American Red Cross, the New Jersey Institute of Technology, the Delaware River and Bay Authority, and individuals such as Dr. Timothy Amukele, an assistant professor of pathology at John Hopkins University.

Amukele researches clinical laboratories in developing countries and chronic diseases in sub-Saharan Africa. For two years, he said some of his research has revolved around whether or not drones are a viable mode of transportation for biological samples. He consistently finds that they are.

"Drones are a new way to support people in crises," Amukele said. "What we’re doing [with the New Jersey flight] is trying to work through how that would actually work."

The majority of communities in the world are located near a body of water, Amukele explained, which means drones could be useful in transporting supplies and medical samples between onshore and offshore sites.

Transporting biological samples requires stringent criteria, Amukele added. If you were to strap the samples to a motorcycle, for example, the vibrations of the engine alone could compromise them.

Transporting samples by drone is an even more difficult pitch for the public to fathom.

"That’s where thoughtful PR comes in," said Amukel, who was introduced to Mark Ryan at a conference last fall. "When people hear the word ‘drone,’ they think of something that comes out of the sky to kill their children. What needs to be done is sensitizing the public to how drones can be useful rather than harmful."

As communicators, it is also critical to have an understanding of the technology, added Mark Ryan.

"We’ve developed our own drone technology in parallel — a tethered drone system we submitted for approval to FAA and filed patents on," he said. "It’s given us an up-close and intense understanding."

This is the second time Ryan Media Lab has worked with Flirtey, the first being a supply drop in Virginia at a "pop-up clinic" run by Remote Area Medical, which services about 3,000 people once a year. By car, it would have been a 90-minute trip. By drone, the supplies were in the hands of the clinic within a seven-minute span.

It was the first drone delivery ever signed off by the FAA. Like the New Jersey flight, the demonstration also relied on a strong coalition encompassing more than a dozen players from the Virginia community, the drone industry, as well as the state and federal government.

Ryan Media Lab helped connect the dots between Virginia Tech, Remote Area Medical, Flirtey, and other partners involved in the flight, including NASA’s Langley Research and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who personally received the first medical package at the clinic.

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