Share on Pinterest
Researchers found that drones may be able to get to a patient more quickly. Getty Images
  • Researchers found that drones could respond to certain emergencies far more quickly than ambulances mired in traffic.
  • A drone may be able to deliver lifesaving medication like an epinephrine auto-injector or a defibrillator that can help jump-start the heart.
  • Experts say more research is needed, but this may be the future of first responders.

Imagine this scary but not uncommon scenario: Someone you know goes into cardiac arrest. So you call 911. An ambulance is immediately dispatched, only to be mired in traffic. As the minutes tick by, the person’s chance at survival slowly dwindles. So you wait and hope.

Now, imagine the same scenario, but within just a few minutes of the 911 call, an aerial drone zips over the skyline with lifesaving medication and a defibrillator.

During a medical emergency, a few minutes can mean the difference between life and death.

Now, thanks to new technology, the idea of using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), colloquially referred to as drones, to save precious minutes by flying up and over traffic gridlock is a tantalizing one.

And doctors are taking an interest.

In a new study presented today at the American Academy of Pediatrics 2019 National Conference & Exhibition, researchers found that drones arrived faster than ambulances during rush hour conditions in Brooklyn, New York.

In the drone scenario, you may be able to use your phone, Skype, or FaceTime to get instructions from medical professionals to administer the medication and use the equipment.

Now, instead of minutes waiting on the sidelines, you become the EMT. You begin to do as instructed. You stabilize the patient. A few minutes later, the ambulance shows up to take them to the hospital.

“We found that overall velocity of travel was faster with drones and that time to arrival on average based on distance was also faster,” said the abstract’s author, Dr. Mark Hanna, a fellow in pediatric emergency medicine at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York.

Obviously, a drone wouldn’t be the correct responder for all scenarios, such as if a patient broke a leg or had a major trauma injury. But Hanna theorizes that drones could help with a specific niche of emergency scenarios in which the medication or intervention is relatively easy to perform and time is of the absolute most importance to saving an individual’s life.

Specifically, he notes emergencies such as acute anaphylaxis, which is treated with injectable epinephrine; opioid overdose, which is reversed through the intranasal medication Narcan; asthma; cardiac arrest; and even certain types of poisoning.

“I don’t think this will ever replace EMS response at all. I just think that it’s an excellent augmentation,” said Hanna.

In order to compare drone response time to traditional EMS response, Hanna and his team combed through public records for ambulance response times in Brooklyn, combing through more than 4,000 ambulance calls.

Hanna and his team then tested drone flight response times by flying a drone while attempting to replicate time and weather conditions of some of those ambulance calls.

In total, they conducted 50 drone test flights.

While Hanna admits they need more robust data by flying many more drones, the results are promising.

On average, drones were faster, with a travel velocity of 6.54 mph, compared with 5.04 mph of an ambulance. Unsurprisingly, they also arrived faster to the scene, with an average time to first response of 6.48 minutes compared to 9.54 minutes of an ambulance — arriving about 30 percent faster to emergency situations.

However, time isn’t the only factor in emergency situations, and the potential use of drones raises additional concerns that would need to be addressed.

“Faster response times would certainly help to increase delivery of care in life threatening situations. But delivery of medications and equipment without ready, willing, and able lay or even medical providers may be a rate limiting step that must be considered in actual delivery of care itself,” said Dr. Robert Glatter, an emergency physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.

What Glatter points out is that even if a drone physically arrives faster than an EMS response, the tradeoff is that the medical intervention will likely be in the hands of an individual with little to no medical training or expertise.

Not only does that present potential dangers to the patient, but having to receive video instructions also cuts into the precious time saved by the drone’s aerial speed.

But Hanna notes that this research represents only the very first stages of exploring drones in emergency medicine. He describes the next phase of his research as exploring how well untrained people would hypothetically be able to receive and replicate instructions on how to administer certain medications during a medical emergency.

Essentially, is the average person actually capable of using a defibrillator or Narcan in an emergency scenario?

That isn’t clear at this stage of research, but Hanna is optimistic about the future of drones to help save lives.

“I believe inherently of the possibility that drones have in really helping medicine going forward,” he said.

That sentiment is also enthusiastically supported by Glatter, who added that we’re just beginning to realize the potential upside of drones to help people.

“While logistical and technical issues still exist on some levels, this technology has the potential to expedite treatment and save lives in the field,” Glatter said. “We should embrace it, and welcome UAVs as an emerging modality to enhance our practice.”