It’s Not a Bird, It’s Not a Plane

Drones for evil? That’s so 2012.

Alec Momont needed a final project for his Master’s degree at Delft University of Technology. A neighbour had died recently of cardiac arrest because the ambulance couldn’t get there in time. Momont’s solution was to look up.

‘It is essential that the right medical care is provided within the first few minutes of a cardiac arrest,’ the 23-year-old told the TU Delft website. ‘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.’

And that’s just what Momont did. The 4-kilogram drone carries a defibrillator and a webcam-equipped communication channel; medical personnel can monitor, instruct and answer questions with the person administering care. Skipping the traffic shaves 9 minutes off travel time.

Momont:

‘Some 800,000 people suffer a cardiac arrest in the EU every year, and only 8% survive. 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 4 to 6 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 8% to 80%.’

Needless to say, Momont did well on the project. Now, two weeks after graduation, he’s collaborating with project funder and innovation centre Living Tomorrow to bring ambulance drones to the Netherlands. He envisions a network of 3000 unmanned aerial vehicles perched atop telephone poles, ready to provide medical supplies and instructions.

There are some bugs to work out. There are problems with the object avoidance system (the drones keep bumping into things) and nobody’s sure how to regulate UAVs in populous areas. The cost (€15,000 a pop, plus remote medical support personnel) may be prohibitive.

But Momont remains optimistic, and sees many other applications for airborne ambulances, including using a heat sensor-equipped ambulance drone to find avalanche victims. In his description of the ambulance drone project, the designer writes that though ‘drones are still commonly associated with destruction due their usage in clandestine operations’ more and more people are ‘using drones for good.’ By increasing heart attack survival rates from 8% to 80%, I’d say it’s a heckuva start.