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Drones: For When Medical Intervention Has to Get There Before an Ambulance Can

New York City study shows that drones could deliver life-saving medical supplies several minutes before an ambulance arrives

3 min read

Image of an FDNY ambulance
Photo: iStock

Medical drones carrying emergency supplies can reach 911 callers in New York City significantly faster than ambulances, according to new research.

The study pitted commercial drones against emergency medical service  (EMS) serving part of Brooklyn, New York. First responders from EMS arrived on the scene of emergencies in about 9.5 minutes on average during the study period, while the drones arrived in about 6.5 minutes. 

“Three minutes might very well represent the difference between life and death,” says Mark Hanna, a pediatric emergency medicine fellow at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, who orchestrated the study. Hanna presented his results last week at the American Academy of Pediatrics 2019 National Conference and Exhibition in New Orleans.

Hanna says that in emergencies where minutes count, drones could be flown ahead of first responders to deliver drugs and supplies. The drones could be equipped with a small video conference screen, through which a dispatcher could tell the 911 caller what to do.

In a case of anaphylaxis (the body’s potentially fatal allergic response to food, medicine, or an insect sting), a drone could deliver epinephrin, which can quickly reverse the reaction. For cardiac arrest, the drone could deliver a defibrillator. For opioid overdose, an injection of Narcan will revive the user. Drones could even carry antidotes for snake bites and chemical poisoning.

In Hanna’s study, off-the-shelf drones rigged with mock versions of these antidotes navigated to sites in Brooklyn during morning and evening rush hours. Hanna says he could not send the drones to actual emergencies in real time due to health data privacy laws.

Instead, he used EMd data—how far the first responders traveled, how long it took to get there, and other information—to estimate the distance  of the calls. He also noted the weather, wind speed, day of the week and time of day. Then, on a day with similar metrics, he flew drones to the approximate distances of previous emergency calls, and timed them. 

“This paper is lacking real-world data, and I’m completely aware of that,” says Hanna. He says he hopes his project will provide enough evidence to get a green light and funding for a more comprehensive study in which drones are sent to actual emergencies.

“We’re not trying replace EMS. We’re trying to augment the standard of care,” Hanna says. People who call 911 are capable of doing a lot more for the patient while they wait for EMS, and medical drones could provide the tools they need, he says.

Medical drones haven’t been employed much in the U.S., but that seems to be changing. Zipline, a drone delivery company, last week said it had completed a set of military exercises, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Defense, in which the company’s drones delivered mock blood and shock trauma supplies.

Drug retailer Walgreens in October launched a drone delivery service in Virginia that transports non-prescription items using Alphabet’s drone subsidiary Wing. And CVS, another drug retail chain, announced last week that it would partner with delivery company UPS to bring prescription medications to CVS customers’ homes. UPS in October said that it had received the U.S. government’s Part 135 Standard certification to operate a drone airline. 

Medical drones have already been put to work in Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere. Zipline delivers blood on demand in Rwanda and Ghana. And in a study in Iraq, drones that detect when an elderly person has fallen beat ambulances by up to two minutes, delivering first aid to fake patients. 

Hanna, a self-described “drone nerd,” says he was inspired to do the study in New York after hearing about Alec Momont, a grad student at Delft University of Technology, putting a defibrillator on a drone. Momont envisions a service that flies the drone to people in need. I thought: ‘This is saving lives through engineering,’” Hanna says.

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