Saved by an ambulance drone


Built for speed, this new flying doctor leaves paramedics in its wake. By Cathal O’Connell.


Illustration Anthony Calvert

CAMERA

The front-mounted camera gives the pilot a bird’s-eye view to help navigate the vehicle. It also allows the pilot/medic to check the defibrillator is attached correctly to the patient.

FOLDABLE ARMS

Once the drone has landed in an open space, the rescuer can snap-fold these three arms in less than one second and carry the 4 kilogram drone to the patient.

DEFIBRILLATOR PANELS

Two paddles pop out from a compartment at front. The shock power is controlled by the trained pilot-medic back at the base, who will hold off shouting “clear!” until the pads are correctly placed.

BATTERY

The battery powers 50 defibrillator shocks as well as 15 minutes’ flying time for the drone’s six rotor engines. This integrated design saves weight and increases speed.

GPS

Back at base the pilot receives the drone’s exact coordinates via GPS. In future the flight will also be automated using similar technology to that being developed by Amazon.

AMBULANCE DRONE SPECIFICATIONS

Cost: $5,280 (prototype). Final model: $15,828 Top speed: 100 km/h
Weight: 4 kilograms Lift-capacity: 6 kilograms Response time: 12 km2 area within two minutes.
Maximum flight time: 15 minutes

Belgian couple Marie and Nicolas* were strolling through the countryside near their home in Leuven outside Brussels, when Nicolas suddenly collapsed from a cardiac arrest. Marie called emergency services and began cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

But Nicolas needed a defibrillator – the shock pads that could jolt his heart back into its regular beat.

If his heart had stopped in an airport or shopping centre, where defibrillators are kept on hand and staff are trained to use them, he might have had a chance. But Nicolas was not so lucky. “It took over 15 minutes for the ambulance to arrive and by then there was absolutely no chance of saving him,” says Alec Momont, the couple’s neighbour. In the EU alone, fewer than 10% of the 800,000 annual cases of cardiac arrest survive. But if a defibrillator is administered within two minutes, the odds of survival jump to 80%.

Inspired by this tragic event, Momont recently completed a Master’s design degree at the University of Delft in the Netherlands. His prototype ambulance drone can deliver a defibrillator within 12 square kilometres in less than two minutes and could potentially save hundreds of thousands of lives each year. The distinctive yellow drone with flashing lights could be a familiar sight in our city skies within five years, Momont says.

Momont’s drone can zoom through the air at 100 kilometres per hour. To save weight and increase speed, the defibrillator relies on the same battery that powers the drone’s six rotors.

The drone doesn’t fly itself. The pilot stays at base, is medically trained and answers the emergency call. A front-mounted camera provides video feedback to find the target using GPS. After reaching the patient, the pilot/medic tells the user what to do, using the camera to ensure the defibrillator shock pads are placed correctly. The user is then instructed to stand clear before the shock is fired remotely.

Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, have a bad name thanks to their military use as spies and bombers, but a new wave of drones could redeem their image.

A life-saver drone that locates drowning swimmers and drops them a life-belt from the sky is in the pipeline. Other applications include wildlife observation and bushfire monitoring. “In two or three years we’ll be astonished that we haven’t always had them,” says Paul Pounds, a drone researcher at the University of Queensland. Pounds is leading a spin-out company, Olaeris, whose drones could be crucial first-responders to police and firefighter emergency calls.

Momont has already teamed up with drone company, Sky-Hero, and an undisclosed defibrillator company to develop the next model.

The biggest stumbling block to their eventual deployment is government regulation. In the US, Amazon’s plan to unleash a swarm of delivery drones have been held back by the Federal Aviation Authority. Momont believes the ambulance drones have better prospects of being granted a licence. As he points out, ambulance drivers are already allowed to break certain road rules. Momont envisions ambulance drones for diabetic emergencies, anaphylactic shocks – anywhere the patient’s survival depends on a rapid response. “That is much more important and has much more potential than delivering a book to your doorstep.”

*Not their real names

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Cathal O'Connell is a science writer based in Melbourne.
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