How Drones can Save Lives

Drone technology will soon change the way we respond to medical emergencies, accidents, natural disasters, and mass violence.  Their unique capabilities are being tested all over the world and lives are already being saved.

Car accidents requiring medical attention happen every day.  As of now the most we can do as a concerned onlooker is dial 911 and help however we can with the resources on hand.  Imagine a drone arriving precious moments ahead of the ambulance with medical supplies and direct instructions from a doctor giving instructions in real time on how to render aid until the EMTs arrive.

Or a drone arriving with a defibrillator so those on the scene can attend to someone suffering a heart attack, again with medical instruction.  A fleet of drones distributing medical kits during a natural disaster.  Or swimmers in distress being delivered inflatables by a drone they can then cling to as they swim to safety.

Those scenarios are already becoming reality, albeit on a small scale thus far.  Last year two swimmers, ages 17 and 15, were seen going under about 700 meters off the coast of New South Wales, Australia, struggling against the surf.  Thanks to one of the drones (or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV)) surveilling the water their situation was spotted, and the drone deployed within 70 seconds with inflatable life preservers.  This is reported to be the first time a UAV has ever been used for such a rescue.

Surf Life Saving NSW project manager for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), Kelvin Morton, “There is no other life saving operation or organization worldwide that is doing what we’re doing on the size and scale that we’re doing it.”

“These UAVs that we’re using to drop these inflatable pods is innovative, and we know that most or all of the lifesaving organizations around the world are stepping back and waiting to see how this goes.”

Not only are they surveilling the water for those in distress, but for spotting sharks as well.  When needed shark shields are also deployed to those being rescued.

Australia’s neighbor, New Zealand, hopes to have the same drone surveillance of the water within five to six years.  The technology is here; it’s just a question of money. 

Besides rescuing swimmers, there is testing being done on delivering kits of medical supplies and communication with local EMS (Emergency Medical Services) via drone from Mississippi to Sweden.  Studies have shown that for emergencies within a short distance of the local dispatched emergency personnel the drones average an arrival time of 16 minutes faster. 

This would not only save lives by getting supplies and expertise to victims of accident and illness in well-populated settings but also be able to reach those in rural, isolated areas, as well as being perhaps the only chance of rescue for those lost or injured in the wilderness.

Limitations are still being tested, such as functionality of drones in extreme cold and the weight of the payloads they can safely carry. 

Belmar, New Jersey in conjunction with Rutgers University is in the process of testing using drones for swim rescue, delivering a life vest and communication from the rescue team. They have found the drone can get to the victim a minute faster than a lifeguard.  When drowning a minute can well be the difference between life and death.

Drone technology has many applications outside the water.  In natural disasters they can be used for monitoring evacuations, looking for survivors in areas where it would be dangerous for emergency personnel to enter, checking the safety of infrastructure like bridges and buildings after damage, deploying medical supplies, and ensuring communication between the evacuees and rescue personnel.

As we know natural disasters like tornados, earthquakes, wildfires, and floods as well as accidents, even mass accidents such as train crashes and bridge collapses aren’t the only dangers we need contend with in our world.  Drones are also an excellent lifesaving intervention for the great horrors of war, mass shootings, bombings, etc.  The government of the UK has been working on Project Minerva which has, among other robotics, a drone smaller than a bar of soap.  These drones are used for 3D mapping, detecting chemical agents and toxins, as well as determining the location and identification of casualties. 

The Minister of State for Security and Economic Crime, Ben Wallace, said: “I am excited to see the UK being on the front-foot and leading in the development of these autonomous technologies which are secure, reliable and useful for dangerous sites. The potential to protect our responders and protect the public from potentially hazardous scenes is considerable. The UK’s experience and pedigree in security means we are in a prime position to identify what is best placed to tackle the threats of the future.”

As beneficial as it is to shorten the time between injury and assistance where help is nearby, it’s even more critical in areas which are remote or where local resources are inadequate or non-existent.  Zipline, a drone manufacturer in Half Moon Bay, California, began using them to deliver blood and medical supplies in Rwanda.  Areas without roads can get deliveries dropped from drones via parachute. 

“We had heard about this big problem in places with poor road infrastructure that healthcare suffers a lot because they couldn’t get supplies to doctors when they needed them,” said Keenan Wyrobek, Zipline’s chief technologist.

He goes on to say that in some areas in the US up to 20% of blood is discarded because it expires before use, and their project has reduced blood waste by 95% in Rwanda.

As more testing is done on the safety and effectiveness of drone technology, we get closer to similar use in areas of the US where medical resources are limited as well.

[blurb from youtube for the video below:  One of the world’s first drone delivery services is all the way in rural Rwanda, where 27-year-old Abdoul Salam Nizeyimana earns a living by launching and retrieving self-flying planes. Nizeyimana was drawn to not only the technology of his employer Zipline but also its mission: to deliver blood to remote hospitals, helping doctors save their patients’ lives. Like many in Rwanda, Nizeyimana survived a harrowing tragedy to get to where he is today. This is the third episode of “Next Jobs,” a series about careers of the future hosted by Bloomberg Technology’s Aki Ito.]

UNICEF also jumped at the chance to test the technology, to see how it can be used to better serve those most in need.  Once Amazon made the first delivery by drone they began testing in Malawi in southeast Africa.  They used drones to transport HIV blood tests to labs, bridging the gap between the rural clinics and the distant testing facilities. 

On the 25-mile airstrip, companies can test drones for a variety of purposes such as tracking those evacuating from natural disasters and bringing communication via cell phone networks to areas without. 

The testing is critical.  In the United States, the FAA doesn’t allow drones to operate outside the line of sight of the user which limits their use for emergency service purposes.  With extensive testing, we’ll have the data to determine the safety and efficacy of the technology.

“A company testing drones in a warehouse in San Francisco is not facing the same challenges,” says UNICEF’s Andrew Brown. “What’s produced here will work anywhere in the world.”


1 thought on “How Drones can Save Lives”

  1. Hi Emily,

    Drones are definitely here to stay. They are useful in so many ways. I can’t wait to ride a drone taxi like they do in Dubai!



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