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Each year in the U.S., more than 350,000 people outside of hospitals have a cardiac arrest, when the heart stops beating because its electrical system malfunctions. Only about 10% survive. AEDs (automated external defibrillator) are small devices that can shock a heart back to a normal rhythm. More are being placed in public places, but most cardiac arrests happen in private homes. In rural communities with long waits for emergency responders, that’s a particular problem.
Drones can help cope with this challenge. In an experiment designed to see whether drones could help speed the arrival of an AED, researchers ran four simulations in rural Ontario. Each one involved a mock 911 call. A drone and an emergency medical services team were dispatched simultaneously to locations 6.6 to 8.8 kilometers away (that’s 4.1 to 5.5 miles). The drone beat the EMS team every time. The margin was from 2.1 to 4.4 minutes faster.
Then drones competed against paramedics responding to calls at distances of 12 to 18 miles away. In those tests, the drone won by 7 to 8 minutes.
The new study’s lead author, Dr. Sheldon Cheskes, medical director at the Sunnybrook Center for Prehospital Medicine in Toronto, said this test showed drones could work in the real world.
The technology can be a game-changer in rural areas where public access defibrillation — the placement of AEDs in public spaces or large venues — is not yet cost-effective.
There are, however, several challenges before drones can be dispatched on real 911 calls.
One is how to get the AED into a bystander’s hands. “Do you land the drone? Do you tether an AED out of the drone on a rope? Do you use a parachute device to let it softly land on the ground so it could be picked up?” Tests are still underway, according to heart.org.
Drone delivery technology is already being deployed for everything from delivering pizzas to sending cameras down mine shafts. Why not life-saving devices?