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Ambulance Drones May Save Lives

Will heart attack victims one day see their savior fly in on four small propellers?

In the United States, heart disease remains the leading cause of death, and the odds of surviving a heart attack outside a hospital are 1-in-13 – odds that haven't improved in 30 years. But researchers from the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands are trying to change that with what they're calling an ambulance drone.

Project creator Alec Momont explains in a video how his project could save lives. “At over 100 kilometers per hour (62 mph), these drones create an ultra-fast response system capable of increasing survival chance from 8 percent to 80 percent,” Momont says. “This is because the ambulance drone is not affected by current road infrastructure, but is capable of flying in a straight line, bringing down the average response time of an ambulance from 10 minutes to one. … The drone essentially becomes a flying toolbox for your emergency supplies.”

Momont developed a prototype of his idea, which includes wireless communications technology that would allow emergency personnel to instruct people near a heart attack victim how to use the drone’s defibrillator paddles. With the Federal Aviation Administration planning to release new guidelines for drone use in 2015, Momont’s idea could well turn from concept to reality.

And such a thing could happen, said Lt. Paul Vance, department spokesman for the Connecticut State Police. “I wouldn’t say anything is impossible. We’ve got to look at technology and technology that’s out there and available to us in an effort to save lives,” he said. “The clock starts ticking when the heartbeat and respiration stops. So the quicker you can get that defibrillator to an individual, it’s not hard to apply and it’s not hard to do. In fact, it’s very, very simple, and it could be a life-saving measure that could get there much quicker than a ground ambulance.”

Many facilities – like stadiums and shopping malls – already house defibrillators. But in rural areas, Vance said, ambulance drones could be a heart attack victim’s best chance at survival. 

A promotional video for Momont’s ambulance drone shows an actress, panicked, calling emergency services for her father, who she believes had a heart attack. The emergency operator tells the woman to stay calm, an ambulance drone is on the way. After following the operator’s instructions, which first come through the phone then through a speaker inside the drone, the woman’s father sits back up. He’s OK.

Rob Dudgeon, deputy director of the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management, said the concept is a good one, but the ambulance drone's advertising is a bit optimistic. In the video, the woman was not shown doing chest compressions, a practice that has been proven to save lives, Dudgeon said. And at one point, the woman had to leave her father’s side to go outside and find the drone, he added, which is a problem if she was supposed to be doing chest compressions.

The video also portrays the ambulance drone as the solitary solution to the woman’s call. There was no ambulance following close behind. The ambulance drone has the potential to be a great supplement to today’s emergency services, Dudgeon said, but it won’t be a replacement.

Though defibrillator stations are found in large facilities today, they are very rarely used before emergency personnel arrive because people either feel uncomfortable using the paddles or don’t have the wherewithal to locate them during an emergency, he said. And an ambulance drone could suffer from the same problems, though Dudgeon echoed Vance's sentiment that using a defibrillator is very easy and well within the abilities of most people.

As for making headway on the 8 percent survival rate of heart attack victims outside of hospitals, ambulance drones could help, Dudgeon added, but many of those victims couldn’t be helped by a defibrillator anyway -- for those who experience sudden cardiac death, a defibrillator won’t be much help, no matter how it’s delivered, he said.

“We keep talking about this remote medicine stuff, and yeah, there’s potential in all of that," he said, "but we just have to be realistic about what the expectations are.”

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.