Ambulance Drones Could Save Thousands of Lives

How a young student’s innovative idea hopes to boost response times for EMTs

By Woody Brown on June 1, 2015

Editor’s Note: Our world is becoming more connected in new and exciting ways every day. As a technology company, we at Verizon want to keep our customers informed on the latest trends in the "Internet of Things." In this series, we'll explore the exciting implications of this new world of complete connection — from drone technology that could help save lives, to the latest in smart home innovations, to the wearables on our bodies.

Drones have been at the forefront of the national conversation for years now. As the components needed to create them grow smaller and more affordable, many companies and organizations have started exploring the potential that drones could have to improve our daily lives. Whether by delivering a product with unprecedented speed or taking photographs and video from new heights, drones have many capabilities, most of which we have yet to discover. One young man, however, has envisioned a new way to use drones that could save thousands of lives.

One of the greatest obstacles facing first responders and emergency medical technicians [EMTs] when it comes to the difficult business of saving lives is time. Think of your daily commute: people in the United States spend an average of 25.5 minutes traveling one-way to work every day. In bumper-to-bumper traffic, blaring sirens and flashing lights are often not enough to clear a fast path for an ambulance to reach someone in need. During cardiac arrest, there are, at most, a few minutes to save a person’s life. After that, the mortality rate rises steeply. With stakes this high, every second counts.

Alec Momont, a graduate student in engineering at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, recognized this problem and saw a way to significantly reduce deaths that result from delayed emergency care. What if ambulances could fly? Or rather, what if we could make a drone that functioned like a stripped-down, lightweight automatic external defibrillator [AED]? AEDs, which can be found in schools, sports arenas and many government buildings, are significantly more effective than cardiopulmonary resuscitation [CPR] at preventing fatalities resulting from cardiac arrest. CPR can be helpful, but an AED is better, and very few people have AEDs in their cars or homes.

As his master’s degree project, Momont built a prototype of this life-saving drone. It contained an AED, a microphone and speakers. The average travel time, according to him, could be cut by 90 percent.

Here’s how it works: In the event of cardiac arrest, a paramedic would respond to a call by flying the drone at a speed of 60 mph to the scene of the emergency. The paramedic would then give instructions to someone near the victim, who would position the AED. Once in place, the AED would operate automatically. The paramedic would be able to see through the camera whether or not the pads on the AED have been correctly positioned, and how the victim responds.

A dramatized video released by Momont’s university demonstrates all of this functionality. In it, a young woman calls emergency services in a panic because her father has had a heart attack. A calm-voiced EMT answers and guides her through the surprisingly simple process of finding and using the drone. Fewer than two minutes after she makes the call, her father sits up and hugs her.

The ambulance drone can increase the chances of surviving cardiac arrest from eight percent to 80 percent, Momont says in the video. The drone’s ability to travel as the crow flies frees it from infrastructural limitations that currently impede road-bound ambulances. “Using advanced production techniques such as 3D printed microstructures and carbon fiber frame construction, we were able to achieve a very lightweight design,” Momont says. “The result is an integrated solution that is clear in its orientation and friendly in appearance.”

Momont’s aim is to rapidly expand the existing framework of emergency services by constructing many of these drones over the next five years. Expenses are low: each drone is relatively cheap to make, about $18,600. By comparison, a typical ambulance costs more than $100,000, and a ride in one usually costs more than $1,000.

The ambulance drones can even fly autonomously (though legislation in many countries does not permit this yet). Several emergency service providers have already expressed interest. If the technology continues to receive financial support from other parties in the healthcare industry, Momont’s dream could very easily become a reality.

We live in a world where drones have, so far, been used mostly in armed conflict. Momont, however, has a different vision. In the near future that he describes, tens of thousands of needless deaths will be prevented with his ingenious invention. That is certainly welcome news, especially in the United States, which deals with skyrocketing numbers of heart-related ailments and disabilities. “Let’s use drones for a good purpose,” Momont says. “Let us use drones to save lives.”

Follow along on Twitter using the hashtag #TK, and share your own insights on this new world of connected everything.

More stories in this series:

· Ambulance Drones Could Save Thousands of Lives

· Smart Socks, Smart Skates and Other Interesting/Unusual New Wearables

· Some Experts Think 'Hearables' Will Beat Wearables For Health Monitoring

· Turn Your House Into a Smarthome

Tags: drone, Emergency, health