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Drones Could Save Lives Faster Than Paramedics

Copters carrying AEDs might increase survival odds in people suffering cardiac arrest.

Jesse Hicks

Karolinska Institute

When someone goes into cardiac arrest, seconds count. And while emergency services are fast, there's one thing that may be faster: drones. A Swedish study published yesterday found that drones carrying an automated external defibrillator (AED) can reach people suffering cardiac arrest more than 16 minutes faster than EMS crews by flying the friendly and uncrowded skies. The drones could help save lives by quickly delivering the devices often found in schools and public spaces like malls and airports.

"Every minute that passes from collapse to [cardiopulmonary resuscitation] or defibrillation, the chances of survival goes down by 10 percent," Jacob Hollenberg, study leader and director of the centre for resuscitation science at the Karolinska Institute, told The Guardian. That's why survival after 10 to 12 minutes is basically zero. There's a huge difference in using the defibrillator within the first few minutes. Even if you improve the timing of the ambulances in these type of situations, it's too late—only one in 10 victims survive."

To test whether drones really could shorten response times, Hollenberg and his colleagues ran a simulation. They set up an AED-carrying, fluorescent-yellow drone developed by the Swedish Transportation Agency at a fire station north of Stockholm. Then, over a 72-hour period, they dispatched it to 18 locations where cardiac arrests had been called in between 2006 and 2014; all were within a 6-mile radius of the fire station.

Since EMS crews had previously responded to cardiac-arrest calls at those sites, researchers compared those dispatch and travel times with their drone flights: While EMS services took 22 minutes from dispatch to arrival, the drone made the trip in just over 5 minutes.

The drone has an AED symbol and text in Swedish and English. The AED is placed at the rear of the drone to improve aerodynamics. The bystander unloads the AED after landing by releasing the straps and unzipping the pouch. Photo: Karolinska Institute

The drone has a maximum cruising speed of 47mph and, thanks to GPS, a high-definition camera, and autopilot software, it flew completely autonomously from takeoff to landing. It's not exactly your friend's Mavic Pro casually dropping off life-saving medical supplies—then again, it's not that far off, either.

The numbers are impressive, but there are a few caveats. The test location was chosen in part because it was known for extensive delays in EMS response time; other areas might not show such a wide difference. Plus, traffic patterns may have changed in the time between the initial EMS runs and the drone trials so perhaps ambulances would be faster now. The drones also had good weather in their simulation.

Drones have a limited range, meaning they can't totally replace emergency crews, nor should they as people still need to be taken to a hospital. There's also the matter of laws regulating drone flights. And the small simulation focused solely on response times—it didn't address how providing a civilian with an AED might compare to having a trained EMS crew on the site in terms of health outcomes. (Though Hollenberg told The Guardian that AED's are "easier to use than a fire extinguisher.")

Still, the approach shows potential—and it's part of an emerging trend of using drones to deliver healthcare. Hollenberg even said future studies could test drones for other health emergencies, like allergic reactions. It might not be long before medicine begins to arrive from the skies.

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