Drones to the Rescue: Flying Defibrillators Reach People Faster Than Ambulances


“911, what’s your emergency?” the dispatcher asks.

“My dad looks like he just had a heart attack and fell to the floor!” responds the shaken caller.

“The drone has just been dispatched for takeoff with a defibrillator. That will arrive at your address before we do,” the dispatcher reassures the caller. “Stand by while I tell you how to you use the defibrillator.”

Credit: World Vish/YouTube.com

This isn’t medical care decades into the future: The technology is in place now and the scenario described here already has been proven effective in real-world scenarios.

In what is perhaps the most practical use for a drone yet, Swedish researchers have shown a drone that takes off from a fire department can reach a call within a 6-mile radius of the state about 16 minutes faster than an ambulance.

Those are some serious lifesaving numbers.

The study was conducted by Andreas Claesson, an RN and Ph.D, of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden. Several medical doctors also co-authored the paper.

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“A drone was developed and certified by the Swedish Transportation Agency and was equipped with an (auto-defibrillator that weighs under two pounds) and placed in a station in a municipality north of Stockholm, reported JAMA, which published the research in a news release.

Drone Arrives With Defibrillator in Five Minutes

“The drone was equipped with a global positioning system (GPS) and a high-definition camera and integrated with an autopilot software system,” JAMA continued.

Survival rates for out-of-hospital heart attacks are extremely low — 10 percent at best, the Swedish researchers explain in their research letter.

“Reducing time to defibrillation is the most important factor for increasing survival in (out-of-hospital cardiac arrests),” the researchers wrote.

Seconds really do count during a heart attack. Shaving 16 minutes off a response time is extraordinary.

According to the research letter:

  • The median time from dispatch to drone launch was three seconds.
  • The median time from dispatch to arrival of the drone was 5:21 minutes, but in some cases, the drone arrived in just over a minute.

“The drone arrived more quickly than EMS in all cases with a median reduction in response time of 16:39 minutes,” the researchers reported. “No adverse events or technical issues occurred during any flights.”

The study does have limitations, in addition to being relatively small — only 18 flights. Also, they all were short distances and in good weather.

“Saving 16 minutes is likely to be clinically important,” the authors wrote.

“Nonetheless, further test flights, technological development, and evaluation of integration with dispatch centers and aviation administrators are needed.”

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