Taking Drones Seriously 2016-11-14

Burrito-copters, Amazon delivery drones, FPV racing, consumer applications for small, powerful, remotely-piloted helicopters (colloquially “drones”) have surged in recent years. These range from entertaining new ideas to iterative improvements over existing systems, but none of them have really grabbed me. It has been easy to see drones as a consumer toy, a way for the nouveau riche to make their lives a tiny bit easier but overall unlikely to really change much. One project has made me reconsider this, to accept all the over-hyped consumerism in the field as eventually in service to a higher cause.

In 2014, TU Delft in cooperation with the University Hospital of Ghent developed a proposal for an ambulance drone. As best I can tell it was only a design exercise as part of a graduate studies program, but this one idea is what made me look at all drone technology in a different light.

An Aside: Heart Attacks

Every year there are somewhere around 350,000 out-of-hospital heart attacks in the US. Of those only around 12-15% survive. That is roughly 300,000 deaths every year just from this single cause. In cases where there is a bystander to administer chest compressions (CPR), those survival rates can double, and in cases where the bystander has access to an Automatic External Defibrillator (AED, one of those shock-y things with the paddles) they can almost triple, as high as 40% in some places.

Just to emphasize this, that means that if even a relatively modest number of these out-of-hospital heart attacks had a bystander with access to the tools and information to administer basic life support we could save 100,000 lives every year. By comparison, road traffic accidents (something I hope will drop sharply as self-driving vehicles become more widespread) kill roughly 35,000 people each year.

Back To The Drones

So here the stage is set. On the table is saving an almost unthinkable number of lives using mostly existing tools and technologies. An average consumer AED today weighs about 3 kilograms. Current commercially-available heavy lift drones can carry 3-5 kilograms of supplies with a range of a few kilometers. Purpose-built devices could likely extend this even further using shared batteries and lightweight components.

Imagine if you will a set of drone stations on rooftops spaced throughout a city. Linked to 911 dispatch, and outfitted with an AED and instructions on how to administer basic life support until professionals arrive. If we wanted to dream a little bigger, add in a few other supplies that can make the difference between life and death in the minutes it takes for an ambulance to arrive like adrenaline for allergic reactions or bandages and clotting assists for accidents and puncture wounds.

All together this could be an enormous shift in emergency medical care. And yet I’ve heard basically nothing about developments in this direction over the years. A few companies have issued press releases and CGI mock-ups, but little visible progress.

Medicine has always been a careful balance of cutting edge technology and extremely slow evolution. We only have to look as far back as the Therac-25 to see that this is often warranted and necessary to ensure patient safety. But with ambulance drones I think more rapid movement is called for given the low risks and manifold rewards.

I hope to see this vision realized, and I hope all you readers will join me in advancing it where we can.

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