Demand for drones is growing year on year, as more and more sectors see them as a fantasy, from the military to e-commerce and police. At the same time, it turns out that emergency services could also benefit greatly from flying vehicles.
A Swedish experiment has shown that a drone carrying a defibrillator that can be operated by an ordinary person can reach the patient faster than a conventional ambulance. Sofia Schierbeck, a researcher at the Karolinska Institute’s Centre for Resuscitation Science in Stockholm and author of the study, says we are at the dawn of a new beginning, where drones could play a bigger role in saving lives than ever before.
Sudden cardiac arrest can occur because an electrical disturbance in the heart causes it to stop immediately, cutting off blood to the brain and vital organs. Death can occur within minutes if the heart rhythm is not restored. Unfortunately, this dramatic event only causes preliminary symptoms in a minority of cases, and most of the time there are no signs. In addition, surveys show that patients wait too long to call for help, even though it is important to be aware that if chest pain of a compressive nature does not go away within five minutes, an ambulance should be called immediately.
According to the experts who carried out the study, using a defibrillator as soon as possible could increase the chances of survival from ten to fifty percent, but this requires help to arrive in time. The trial actually started in 2017. A study in 2017 showed that fifty-five out of every 100,000 people in the United States go into sudden cardiac arrest each year, and only eight to ten percent survive. Jacob Hollenberg, director of the centre, told the Guardian: he believes that cardiac arrest is one of the leading causes of sudden cardiac arrest in Western countries. As he said, in such cases every minute, or even every second, counts.
After ten to twelve minutes of cardiac arrest, there is virtually no chance of survival. So using a defibrillator can make a huge difference in the first few minutes, but improving the arrival time of the ambulance service alone is not enough. On average, one in ten patients survive.
In their trial, the experts demonstrated a drone built by the Swedish State Transport Agency. The device, equipped with eight propellers, weighs just over five and a half (5.7) kilograms, the automated defibrillator weighs seven hundred and sixty-three grams and has a maximum speed of seventy-five kilometres per hour. It is located in a fire barracks in the north of Stockholm and was used eighteen times in October 2016 by two trained pilots. GPS was used to control the aircraft in a ten-kilometre area where numerous cardiac arrests were recorded between 2006 and 2014.
The average time between calling and sending the drone was three seconds, compared to three minutes for the rescuers. The average time between the drone’s call and arrival was five minutes and twenty-one seconds, compared to twenty-two minutes for an ambulance. On average, the drone arrived at the scene sixteen minutes and thirty-nine seconds earlier than a conventional ambulance. However, the Guardian also mentioned the limitations of drone first aid: traffic may have changed from 2006 to 2014, and the study did not look at the proportion of paramedics and civilian bystanders involved in resuscitation.
Hollenberg, who says a defibrillator is easier to use than a fire extinguisher, hopes that drones could be deployed in healthcare within two years. In the meantime, of course, they still have a number of trials to complete and they will have to obtain permission from the aviation authorities, as current Swedish law only allows drones to fly at a distance that is within the field of vision of the external operator.
According to the director, drones will also be used in other cases, such as road accidents or allergic attacks. In an interview with New Scientist, Adrian Boye of the Royal College of Medicine’s emergency department in London called the Swedish experiment “strange”: he said more effort should be put into teaching ordinary people to perform CPR.
In many major cities, including London and Stockholm, there are mobile apps that can alert resuscitators near the patient. For example, the Staying Alive android app, available in eighteen languages, which pinpoints the nearest automatic defibrillators (more than 80,000 devices have been registered worldwide so far). Within this app, there is also an app called Bon Samaritain, which anyone who is capable of providing emergency assistance can subscribe to, so that those in the immediate vicinity can alert them if necessary.