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Ambulance drone delivers help to heart attack victims

An ambulance drone carrying a defibrillator for rapid response to heart attacks has just been unveiled in the Netherlands.

Michelle Starr Science editor
Michelle Starr is CNET's science editor, and she hopes to get you as enthralled with the wonders of the universe as she is. When she's not daydreaming about flying through space, she's daydreaming about bats.
Michelle Starr
3 min read

TU Delft

One of the most important considerations in emergency medical treatment is response time. Now, an engineering graduate at Delft University of Technology has created a rapid response drone to do what a regular ambulance can't. The drone, created by Alec Momont, is able to fly at speeds of up to 100 kph (60 mph), carrying a defibrillator and equipped with features that could reduce the time before a heart attack victim receives first aid, greatly increasing the chances of recovery.

"It is essential that the right medical care is provided within the first few minutes of a cardiac arrest," Momont said. 'If we can get to an emergency scene faster, we can save many lives and facilitate the recovery of many patients. This especially applies to emergencies such as heart failure, drownings, traumas and respiratory problems, and it has become possible because life-saving technologies, such as a defibrillator, can now be designed small enough to be transported by a drone."

The prototype drone is designed to be deployed when emergency services receive a cardiac arrest call. Unconstrained by traffic and roads, the drone, in theory, could arrive at the scene faster than an ambulance. Because it cannot, however, carry EMTs, it is equipped with the next best thing: livestream audio and video connection that will allow medical professionals to deliver instructions to people at the site, viewing the situation through the webcam and talking the responder through the treatment -- including how to use the defibrillator.

Alex Momont

Currently, only 20 percent of untrained people are able to use a defibrillator with any success; with an emergency technician issuing instructions via webcam, this could be increased to 90 percent, Momont said.

"Some 800,000 people suffer a cardiac arrest in the EU every year, and only 8 percent survive," he said. "The main reason for this is the relatively long response time of the emergency services (approx. 10 minutes), while brain death and fatalities occur within four to six minutes. The ambulance drone can get a defibrillator to a patient inside a 12 km2 zone within one minute. This response speed increases the chance of survival following a cardiac arrest from eight percent to 80 percent."

At this point in time, there are some barriers to a widespread deployment of the ambulance drone. Air traffic laws in the Netherlands forbid the use of autonomous drones; this legislation is expected to be rectified sometime in 2015.

The drone is also yet to be tested on real patients, and the system of object detection and avoidance in the drone needs to be refined. However, Momont -- who developed the drone in collaboration with Belgian innovation platform Living Tomorrow -- believes that it could be as little as five years before his drone is in use. Several medical sector bodies have also registered interest in the project.

"The costs should not be an issue; I have calculated these at approximately €15,000 per drone, which is clearly a reasonable amount if you consider the number of lives that could be saved," Momont said. "I hope it will save hundreds of lives in the next five years."