Drones are making inroads in all different aspects of our lives. Most people fly them for fun and tend to see drones as a hobby or a toy. Meanwhile, however, these unmanned aerial vehicles are quietly transforming many professional operations and for instance, they are increasingly being used by real estate agents, insurance inspectors, maintenance crews, farmers and emergency responders.
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Drones could be lifesaving when minutes count
Unfortunately, we have recently been reminded how critically important the role of first responders or emergency crews is in times of disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes or mass shooting events. Many times victims may be hard to reach by traditional emergency vehicles and personnel. Critical minutes pass as wounded and injured victims wait for an ambulance to arrive. Scientists suggest that high tech drones outfitted with first aid kits could dramatically cut back the response time and bring supplies to people in need.
At the William Carey University in Mississippi, researchers are studying how emergency drones could bring medical kits to victims in a mass casualty event faster than an ambulance would be able to. Bystanders or first responders on the scene would be able to help victims sooner and more lives could be saved during those critical first minutes.
Disaster drone prototypes
The emergency or disaster drones, are designed and built at the Hinds Community College in Mississippi and could also be used to deliver medication to hard-to-reach remote places.
Various prototypes are being built and evaluated, said Italo Subbarao, senior associate dean at William Carey University College of Osteopathic Medicine, who is involved in the university’s telemedicine drone research project. Subbarao continued to say:
We have a kit that is a general medical emergency kit that we would probably fly to a farmer’s home … for a rural type of general medical emergency, such as a heart attack.
We’ve got kits that are designed to go into the wilderness so that if you’re stung by a bee or you’ve got a snake bite, things of that nature, we can provide assistance in that moment.
Most recently, we demonstrated our trauma kits. These kits could be used in a mass casualty event like a terror attack or a train crash, or when someone needs critical care. We look at this as a piece of the puzzle, an important piece of the puzzle, that can connect with the local emergency management system.
Subbarao and his co-workers are not the only ones investigating how drones can be used to help save lives. Similar projects and studies are being done in the Netherlands and Sweden.
Can a drone beat an ambulance?
Recently in Sweden, a team of researchers tested if a drone could bring an automated external defibrillator faster to a patient in cardiac arrest than an ambulance. The drone was outfitted so that even a normal bystander, not trained in first aid, could follow the instructions to check for a heartbeat and if needed send an electric shock to the heart to try and restore a normal rhythm.
During this study, the researchers conducted 18 different test flights with the drone. On average the distance flown was 2 miles and compared to the dispatch and travel time of a traditional emergency medical services team the drone arrived faster with an average reduction in response time of 16 minutes. During all test flights, no technical problems occurred with any of the drones. These minutes can easily be the difference between life and death in emergency situations. The results of this preliminary study were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in June.
More research needs to be done though before you will see first-responder drones flying around delivering medical assistance and supplies to disaster or emergency locations. Technical limitations such as the drone’s reliability, range and ability to carry heavy medical supplies are still being studied and may need to be improved. Also, the drones ability to fly under extreme weather conditions is an area of focus. Subbarao and his colleagues are continuing their research. Subbarao said:
For now, we’ve been working with the Mississippi Emergency Management (Agency) and Mississippi (State) Department of Public Health. We’re in conversations with the state agencies to help us study our product, help us refine what we’re doing here.
How would an emergency drone work?
Different countries around the world are developing first aid emergency drones. These drones are outfitted with a medical kit and instructions. In the U.S. these medical kits would include recommendations set forth in the federal Department of Homeland Security’s initiative Stop the Bleed. This program has been developed to help bystanders to become trained, equipped and empowered to help victims in emergency situations before professionally trained emergency personnel arrive.
The emergency drones could also be outfitted with advanced communication systems so that a doctor could assist the bystander in applying first aid to the victim. Subbarao mentioned that his team has been working with Google Glass and other types of visual aids to improve the communications aspect.
How do the drones know where to go?
Well, just about everyone has a cell phone out, right? And most of them have their GPS.
said Dennis Lott, director of the unmanned aerial systems program at Hinds Community College, who helped develop the emergency or disaster drones in Mississippi. GPS coordinates would be most precise but even when that fails the cellphone network know the approximate location of that phone and that information could be transmitted to the emergency responders.
How do you see drones making an impact in emergency response? Have you witnessed drones being used in this way? Please let us know in the comments below.