Medical Drones Could Beat Ambulances At Saving Lives

By Ryan F. Mandelbaum on at

After someone suffers from cardiac arrest, it’s like a time bomb starts ticking. The best way to increase survival rate is to get someone a defibrillator—and fast. Ambulances have to deal with red lights. Drones can fly.

So some Swedish researchers ran some timed trials to see whether drones really could beat ambulances at the life-saving game. As you might expect, the drone always won, and even though the study was preliminary, the results are promising.

The researchers equipped an eight-rotor, 12.5 pound drone with a defibrillator and painted it to look like a little drone ambulance. They set it up in the Norrtälje municipality near Stockholm, since it’s a place with lots of ambulance delays and a heavy summertime population. Then in 18 trials, they sent both an ambulance and a drone to a simulated 911 call back in October of last year.

The reserachers call it “911" in the paper published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association, but Sweden’s actual emergency number is 112. It could be worse.

The drone beat the ambulance by a long shot in all of the eighteen trials, Journeys that took an ambulance 20 minutes from dispatch to arrival rarely took the drone more than four. The middle trip times were five minutes for the drone, over 20 for the ambulance.

So, a drone could be a great substitute for an ambulance when all you need is for someone to get a defibrillator on the patients. The researchers do call out that this is a preliminary study, though. They would still want someone to test the outcome of cardiac arrest cases from bystanders delivering shocks from the drone’s AED versus an EMT doing the shocking.

That’s pretty much what one outside source told New Scientist as well—you need to make sure that bystanders actually know how to use the defibrillators (and importantly, they’d also have to be willing). But they do point out that England’s National Health Service plans on dispatching emergency drones for some emergencies as well. [JAMA, New Scientist]

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