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In a development hailed as step forward for search and rescue technology, researchers in Australia have used unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to measure the vital signs of people on the ground in a development to be applied in war zones and natural disaster.
Under a collaborative agreement with Australia’s Defence Science and Technology (DST) Group, researchers from the University of South Australia have successfully trialled unmanned aerial vehicles to measure heart and respiratory rates using remote-sensing imaging systems, while hovering three metres from humans.
Video footage from the drones can detect changes in human skin tone and minute head movements to read vital signs, providing a low cost, accurate and convenient way to monitor heart rates without physical restrictions, according to unisa.edu.au.
The breakthrough could have many applications in healthcare, civilian, security and disaster response fields, including triaging disaster victims in earthquakes, detecting security and terrorism threats at airports, and remotely monitoring heart rates of premature babies in incubators.
Under the supervision of Professor Javaan Chahl, the team carried out a number of experiments with 15 healthy individuals, ranging in age from 2-40 years, in both indoor and outdoor settings, and within close range of the drones. The results were as accurate as traditional contact methods – ECGs, pulse oximeters and respiratory belts – that are currently used to monitor vital signs.
“This is the first time that video from a hovering UAV has been used to measure cardiorespiratory signals,” Professor Chahl says.
The experiments were performed within three metres of humans but researchers expect the drones to capture information at much greater distances once the technology is further developed.
The drones could help detect potential terrorists in public spaces, merely by measuring anomalies in their heart rates, according to Chahl.
“A person who is about to engage in violence will probably have anomalous behaviour and physiological signs. They might be highly agitated or unnaturally calm and in many cases they might be under the influence of drugs. There is a good chance that our system can detect these anomalies.”
In the developing world, expensive disposable electrodes could also be replaced with this technology to monitor vital signs remotely and eliminate the temptation to reuse the electrodes which can spread horrific skin infections between neonatal infants.
Aged care facilities may also benefit from the imaging systems which could be placed in strategic locations to monitor older people’s heart and breathing rates, Professor Chahl says.
“Obviously there are privacy and ethical issues around this technology that need to be resolved before it becomes common practice, but there is enormous potential to use machine vision systems to benefit society, particularly in the biomedical sphere.
“I expect we will be using this software in everyday life in the next decade,” Professor Chahl says.