A San Antonio company is working to revolutionize the way patients are evacuated and handled during natural disasters and epidemics like the novel coronavirus.

Locally based Knight Aerospace is currently building a Universal Patient Module – a self-contained medical room that can be quickly loaded onto cargo aircraft to treat contagious patients while they’re being transported. The unit is under construction at Port San Antonio and set for potential use later this year.

The module has undergone more than three years of rigorous design, with this first model set for completion in the late spring or early summer, Knight Aerospace CEO Bianca Rhodes said. These modules are more equipped than medical helicopters or air ambulances, providing capabilities for critical care, telemedicine, isolated treatment and more.

The unit allows for the separation of the patients and their medical team from the aircrew, minimizing the crew’s exposure to diseases, said Dr. Craig Manifold, the chief medical officer for Knight Aerospace.

Knight Aerospace CEO Bianca Rhodes. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“The novel coronavirus is the reason we’ve gotten a lot of calls lately, especially from aircraft providers,” Rhodes said.

The units can be rolled onto a C-130, a C-17, and similar large cargo aircraft and can accommodate up to 12 patients, plus medical personnel. Air ambulances often can only carry up to three people inside, including a medic, and can only travel small distances, Manifold said.

If necessary, the modules also can be offloaded from a plane with patients still inside.

To date, novel coronavirus patients have been transported on commercial aircraft, which are much harder to decontaminate, Manifold said. The planes are not designed for medical transport and have to be grounded for long periods of time while they’re cleaned.

By eliminating the decontamination step, aircrews have more time to help transport patients or drop off medical supplies, he added.

A concept Universal Patient Module is mocked up in the cutaway of a C-17 cargo deck. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Securing the module’s environmental controls — air quality, temperature, and humidity — was one of the more difficult parts of the design, said Knight Aerospace Project Manager Justin Brown. Inside each module is a separate oxygen supply, which provides operating-room-level air quality, giving medics the ability to perform more intensive procedures while flying.

Other difficulties included making the structure airtight, decreasing the plane’s vibrations and adding lighting to the inside of the module, Brown said.

In light of the novel coronavirus this year, inquiries have increased for this module, with Knight Aerospace talking with 30 potential private clients.

“We’ve had the CDC bring teams to San Antonio to visit us and we’ve gone to visit with them,” Rhodes said. “We know it’s not a matter of if, but when? And how well can we control it? So we’re excited to be able to provide a solution that we think is revolutionary and will save lives.”

She added the company is not able to disclose any clients for the medical modules at this time, but that Knight Aerospace is weeks away from announcing its first official buyer.

Units can cost anywhere from $5 million to $10 million, with each module customized to buyer specifications, Rhodes said. While each unit can be furnished with Knight Aerospace’s recommended list of equipment, including ventilators, respirators, suction, oxygen, and more, buyers also are able to outfit it with their own medical equipment, she said.

A mocked-up intubated patient is shown on a stretcher that is mounted in the concept Universal Patient Module. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“This system revolutionizes medical air transport, and we are focused on dramatically improving outcomes as a result,” Rhodes said. “The medical attention that is provided – up to and including emergency surgery – can begin the moment the patient is on board.”

Knight Aerospace was founded in San Antonio more than 30 years ago and relocated to Port San Antonio last year. In addition to these new medical units, the company builds and designs many modular palletized systems for carrier aircraft, including VIP suites, galleys, communications setups and more.

Help Us Inform Our New Coronavirus Reporting

Tell us about you

Please enter a valid email address
Note: By submitting this information, you are agreeing to our terms of service.

Avatar photo

Lindsey Carnett

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report.