In the not so distant future, instead of hearing the wail of ambulance sirens signalling that help is on the way when you or a loved one has a medical emergency, you may hear the sound of an unmanned aerial vehicle buzzing overhead.
Over 800,000 people per year in the EU suffer from cardiac arrest and only 8% survive because the window for effective care is so small: emergency services must arrive within 4-6 minutes to avoid brain damage or death. On a global scale, it’s estimated two billion people live too far from developed urban centers to receive medical care, and five million children per year die because they can’t receive medical supplies due to a lack of infrastructure and access to care.
A significant population of mothers die from postpartum hemorrhaging without access to blood transfusions because of how hard it can be to keep and transport fresh supplies of blood in remote areas. With a global commercial market for drone technology of over $130 billion, several groups of innovators have launched programs to deliver medical assistance via drone to support these remote communities, delivering medical care further and faster than ever before.
Alec Moment of the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands created an Ambulance Drone to respond to heart failure, drowning, respiratory issues, or other traumas requiring immediate attention. The drone his team has designed at TU is a “compact flying toolbox” that can even fly indoors. It contains a lightweight defibrillator, CPR kit, and room to carry other medicines.
Because drones can arrive within one minute of a cardiac event, the survival chances jump from 8% to 80%
After an emergency call is placed, the drone can fly out to the location of the caller at 100 kilometers per hour, and when it arrives the emergency service operator who has been on the phone with the caller can communicate with them via video and voice through the drone.
Untrained civilians average a 20% success rate using a defibrillator, but with instruction by a medical professional overseeing the process they can succeed up to 90% of the time. Because the drone can arrive within one minute of a cardiac event, the survival chances jump from 8% to 80%. Air traffic laws in the Netherlands currently don’t allow for autonomous drones, but the developers are optimistic about them taking to the skies in 2023.
A similar project called HiRO (Health integrated Rescue Operations) has been launched by teams collaborating from William Carey College of Osteopathic Medicine and the unmanned aerial systems program at Hinds Community College in Mississippi, USA.
Their drones are also armed with supplies and enabled to connect civilians to a medical team who can deliver instructions via live video using Google Glass. They’ve been designed for deployment during terrorist or active shooter situations (more common in the USA than anywhere else in the world) or natural disasters, where first responders would be threatened or blocked by flood or fire.
The Stony Brook Global Health Institute from Stony Brook University in New York, along with the United States Agency for International Development, and the government of Madagascar are testing drones created by Varyu in Madagascar.
Varyu’s drones can take off and land vertically, and fly long ranges autonomously to deliver medical supplies such as antibiotics and vaccines, blood samples for tests of tuberculosis or HIV, and urgently needed blood transfusions. 70% of people in Madagascar live in rural settings so remote they can only be reached by foot, and now, by air.
Zipline, a drone startup out of San Francisco, has been cooperating with the government and medical professionals in Rwanda to deliver blood to 7 million people over 7,000 square miles. Rwanda is known as the “land of a thousand hills,” and during the rainy season, the roads flood and not even trucks can pass. Supplies can take 4-6 hours to arrive in small towns.
After blood or medicine is ordered via app or text message, drones can arrive within 15-30 minutes, flying up to 75 miles before recharging
With 21 blood transfusing facilities, the two-meter wingspan fixed-wing Zip drones can perform hundreds of deliveries per day, each carrying 1.5 kilograms of blood. After blood or medicine is ordered via app or text message, the drones can arrive within 15-30 minutes, flying up to 75 miles before recharging.
Zipline’s drones don’t even land: they drop their payloads via parachute. The drones have a map of every roof, tree, and clearing near the hospitals they deliver to, and calculate the trajectory of the parachute accounting for wind speed and direction before releasing it.
They then return autonomously to their delivery centers to be redeployed with their next shipment. After great successes making medical deliveries in Rwanda, Zipline intends to launch a similar program in Maryland, Nevada, and Washington, USA, in 2017.
Lifesaving drones are making a huge impact in underserved areas in Africa, and could be coming soon to replace ambulances in a town near you. Pending the approval of the Federal Aviation Administration, the future of urgent care is exciting: drones able to transport people needing medical care out of war zones, and drones with lightweight onboard cooling systems that could deliver human organs grown in pigs to hospitals in need of transplants.
The idea of drones saving your skin seemed like science fiction only a few years ago. But our future, as ever, gets weirder and more impressive as it rapidly moves onwards and upwards.