Port San Antonio’s first program highlighting local innovators featured new technology that makes air transport and in-flight care for COVID-19 patients safer, faster, and more scalable than ever before.
Joining the discussion were Knight Aerospace president and CEO Bianca Rhodes; Lt. Gen. (Dr.) Paul K. Carlton (Ret.), former U.S. Air Force Surgeon General and Knight Aerospace’s medical adviser; San Antonio Economic Development Foundation president and CEO Jenna Saucedo-Herrera, and Port San Antonio president and CEO Jim Perschbach.
Iris Gonzalez, publisher of StartupsSanAntonio.com, moderated the recorded panel discussion.
Retired Lt. Gen. Dr. Paul K. Carlton, who served as the U.S. Air Force’s Surgeon General from 1999 to 2002, has advised Knight Aerospace engineers over many years. His experience included leading high profile emergency medicine operations during the first U.S. Gulf War and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
He explained why Knight’s new Universal Patient Module (UPM) is a major advance in pandemic responsiveness.
During the 2014 Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa, “we had desperately ill Americans we could not move for fear of contaminating the airplane,” Carlton said. “A colleague from Spain moved their patient on a C-130 and then it was down for three months,” for decontamination.
After the Ebola outbreak, Knight’s CEO and president, Bianca Rhodes emphasized how preparing for the next epidemic became their goal.
“We’ve worked very closely with the CDC, and they said it was just a matter of time until something like this happened,” Knight said. “So, we pivoted the entire company to focus on this medical module.”
Knight applied its longstanding experience producing modular seating, galley, VIP, and other units for military and other cargo aircraft for a global clientele to a new goal – a roll-on, roll-off unit for treating contagious or critically ill patients in-flight without contaminating the aircraft.
After years of design and consultation with the military, Federal Aviation Administration, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Knight’s UPM meets the need for this capability. Knight Aerospace completed the first of its critical patient air transport modules for Canada in early June and will scale up to meet the growing demand.
Each self-contained unit has negative air pressure, HEPA filtration, and air exchange at 30 times per hour for “the air quality of a hospital,” Rhodes said. The UPM setup emulates a hospital room, too.
Knight’s module is also the only flying hospital suite that can withstand intact 9 Gs of force followed by an immediate stop, in accordance with Federal Aviation Administration safety standards.
Up to 12 patients can be loaded into a single module, along with medical staff. It takes less than an hour to load the UPM into a cargo plane like a C-130 or C-17. At the destination, the aircraft can go back into service as soon as the unit is rolled off. All the while, the patients receive lifesaving care, including emergency surgery if needed.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic is the timeliest application for Knight’s technology, the module can also help governments and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) provide comprehensive medical evacuation care during armed conflicts and disasters.
Carlton said Knight’s UPM is the latest in San Antonio’s long tradition of military-medical synergy and innovation.
“We’ve been doing air evacuation for more than a hundred years,” Carlton said. “It started in San Antonio during the Pancho Villa expedition. Pilots simply loaded an injured man into a Curtiss Jenny and flew them away with no medical care.”
A century later, Knight’s life-saving innovation offers government and NGO medical teams around the world the ability to provide hospital-quality care in the air while preventing the spread of the most contagious diseases. Rhodes said they’ve had interest not only from the U.S. military but also from air forces in other countries.
Saucedo-Herrera said San Antonio’s unique business and military climate makes innovations like Knight Aerospace’s possible.
“In terms of research and development within our universities, the Department of Defense, and our private sector, a company here in San Antonio can connect with a variety of industries,” Saucedo-Herrera said. “It’s true of military medicine, but San Antonio also has [R&D in] biosciences, cybersecurity, the list goes on.”
Perschbach noted that the innovations developed here often have international impact.
“San Antonio has a tremendous history when it comes to aviation and aerospace,” he said. “Things we take for granted like airplane seatbelts, landing gear and engine cases all started right here at Port San Antonio back when it was Kelly Air Force Base and before that, Kelly Field.”
As a relatively new tenant at Port San Antonio, Knight Aerospace joins aerospace, robotics and other companies on the 1,900-acre campus designed for collaboration and innovation.
“The type of work that Bianca and Knight Aerospace are doing becomes an asset for citizens all over the world,” Perschbach said. “That’s something that we are tremendously excited about.”
Upcoming Port San Antonio programs will highlight innovations in cybersecurity, robotics and other applied technologies that are growing on the campus and elsewhere in the region.
Featured image is of the interior of Knight Aerospace’s medical module for the evacuation of critical and contagious patients during flights. Courtesy image.