Drone hobbyists know that unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, have been used by the government since the 1970s, mainly for aerial surveillance. And more recently, drones have attracted attention due to the interest of major retailers — especially Amazon — for quick and efficient package deliveries. But one of the most exciting areas of deployment is just beginning to make headlines — telemedical drones.
Benefits of telemedical drones
Telemedical drones are intended to medically assist those who are trapped in hard-to-reach locations. In a medical emergency, time is often of the essence, since brain death and fatalities can occur within four to six minutes and in today’s world, a typical ambulance response runs around 10 minutes. For individuals who are in very remote areas — mountain climbers, for instance — the wait could be days for help to arrive.
Drones are able to fly into these hard-to-access locations with supplies, such as equipment needed to stabilize broken bones or an Automated External Defibrillator in the case of someone who has suffered a heart attack. Once the drone lands, a two-way radio and video transmissions allows direct communication between a medical professional and the person requiring help, or even alternate people on the scene providing help. The medical professional on the other end of the line can talk individuals through the use of the AED and other equipment at a critical moment that might save their life.
Healthcare Integrated Rescue Operations
HiRO — pronounced “hero,” for Healthcare Integrated Rescue Operations, refers to the Telemedical Drone project developed by Dr. Italo Subbarao, an associate dean and associate professor at the William Carey University College of Osteopathic Medicine, and Guy Paul Cooper Jr., a fourth year medical student at the same institution. Their prototype is the first fully-equipped medical multirotor drone with telemedicine capability. In addition to supporting rural and wilderness emergencies, the project supports victims and rescue workers during bombings, terrorist attacks, and mass shootings.
One of the missions of the HiRO project is to send supplies into areas where first responders might have to delay reaching victims. The Pulse nightclub in Orlando, where an active shooter was on site, is an example of when this type of timely intervention could help control blood loss and be life-saving. People can live anywhere from two minutes to two hours after the type of injuries sustained during this shooting, and many times death happens before help is able to reach them.
There are three stages in the use of telemedical drones.
- The first is one of observation, where drones provide aerial photography and a video feed of the scene to give responders a preview of the emergency site.
- The second is the delivery stage, where the medicinal “tool kit” is transported and dropped on the location. The Mayo Clinic has suggested that blood products and antivenom for snake bites could be excellent candidates for drone delivery.
- The last stage is the communication stage, where through drone video sensors and transmission, high fidelity data and two-way communication is enabled between providers and responders, or lay people, on the scene.
Stage three is critical because often the people most likely to administer aid on the scene are not medical professionals, but simply people who just happen to be in the vicinity. A medical drone can be the vehicle that delivers life-saving treatment, lending a remote physician’s eyes, ears and voice to instruct anyone on site.
Two new telemedical packages have been created for the HiRO project — one for a severely injured victim and the other for a mass casualty, which would be capable of treating up to 100 people with significant to minor injuries. An example of the latter might be an Ebola outbreak in a third-world country, where rescue personnel may not want to enter right away due to the fear of contagious diseases. The package was designed for use in the chaos and confusion where guidance must be simple, direct, and user friendly.
Both mobile telemedical kits provide immediate and secure access to a provider on the other end of the screen. Using Google Glass and a video screen that are included in the kit, the person providing assistance can communicate with a remote physician who can talk him or her through treatment until more help arrives. The glasses allow the person to attend to victims while maintaining communication with the physician.
The drones themselves are capable of carrying telemedical packages in the worst of conditions. They have impressive lift and distance capability, as they are fitted with KDE Direct industrial components, and can be outfitted with a variety of sensors, such as infrared, to help locate victims. The HiRO prototype, a modified DJI S1000+ drone, is capable of carrying a 20-pound telemedical kit and delivering it in areas where emergency personnel may not be able to reach quickly. The drone is remotely controlled and has a GPS transmitter.
Drones in rural, underserved areas
It is Dr. Subbarao’s hope to eventually deploy a fleet of the HiRO drones throughout the country, particularly to rural, underserved areas. He believes they could be used to deliver military medicine or aid in the event of a hazardous material situation. The drone could even have such advanced features as a sensor that can detect hazardous chemicals during flight – patrolling over an area and then sounding an alarm to warn emergency personnel not to enter.
Dr. Subbaro believes that advanced technologies, such as the telemedical drones he is developing, will help save lives as threats arise in remote and difficult-to-access locations around the world. The team is currently building additional modular kits. A cardiac kit is in the testing stages, and plans are in the works for Ebola and trauma kits.