Picture this: your medical first responder descends from the sky like a friendly, unmanned starship. Hovering over your door, it drops a device with recorded instructions to help a bystander jumpstart your heart that has stopped. This, after the 911 call but before the ambulance arrives.
This is exactly what happened on Dec. 9, 2021, when a 71-year-old man in Sweden suffered a cardiac arrest while shoveling snow. A passerby, seeing him collapse, called for an ambulance. In just over three minutes, a drone swooped overhead carrying an Automated External Defibrillator (AED). The patient was revived on the spot before the ambulance arrived to rush him to the hospital where he made a full recovery. The revolutionary technology saved his life.
In 2020, Sweden became the first country to deploy drones carrying AEDs to people in sudden cardiac arrest, when survival odds depend on getting CPR and an electric shock to the heart from a defibrillator within 5 minutes—nearly always before emergency responders arrive.
In the U.S. alone, more than 356,00 cardiac arrests occur outside of hospitals each year; 9 out of 10 of these people die. Plus, the risk of permanent brain injury increases after the first three minutes the heart stops beating. After nine minutes, damage to the brain and other organs is usually severe and irreversible.
“The fundamental technology can be applied to a lot of other emergency situations.”
Once the stuff of sci fi, the delivery of life-saving medical equipment by drone will be commonplace in the near future, experts say. The Swedish team is hailing their study as the first-ever proof of concept for using drones in emergency medicine. The drones arrived only two minutes before the ambulance in most cases but that’s significant during cardiac arrest when survival rates drop 10% every minute.
Since that 2020 pilot, the drones have been tweaked for better performance. They can travel faster and after dark today, and route planning has been optimized, says Mats Sällström, chief executive officer of Everdrone, the technical and development guru for the project, who is collaborating with researchers at the Karolinska Institutet and Sweden’s national emergency call center, SOS Alarm.
When an emergency call comes in, the operator determines if it’s a cardiac arrest. If so, the caller gets CPR instructions while an ambulance is summoned and a control center is notified automatically to dispatch a drone. If conditions allow, the drone flies to the scene via a GPS signal from the caller’s cell phone. Once dropped at the location, the AED beeps to signal its arrival. The AED talks the user through every step when it’s opened while the emergency operator offers support.
Public health officials have tried placing AEDs in public spaces like airports and shopping malls for quick access but the results have been disappointing. Poor usage rates of 2% to 3% have been attributed to bystanders not knowing where they are, not wanting to leave victims, or the site being closed when needed.
Some people fear they could harm the victim or won’t know how to use the AED but not to worry, says Wayne Rosamond, a professor of epidemiology at the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health, who studies AED drones. “[The device] won’t shock someone unless they need to be shocked,” he says.
The AED instructions are foolproof, echoes Timothy Chan, professor of engineering at the University of Toronto, who has been building optimization models to design drone networks in Ontario, Canada. All the same, he says, community education will be essential for success. “People have more awareness about drones than AEDs,” he’s found.
Rosamond and Chan are among scientists around the world inspired by Sweden to do their own modeling, simulation and feasibility studies on drone-delivered AEDs.
“Scandinavia is way ahead of us,” notes Rosamond. “There is a tremendous amount of regulatory control over flying drones in the U.S.” In addition to Federal Aviation Administration restrictions, medical drones in the U.S. must comply with HIPAA laws surrounding confidentiality and security of patient information.
To date, Sweden has expanded drone operations and home bases around the country and throughout Europe. Since April 2021, the team has deployed 1-4 drones per week, says Sällström.
Certain weather conditions remain an obstacle. The drones cannot be dispatched safely in rain, snow and heavy wind. Close, heavily populated neighborhoods with high-rise buildings also present challenges.
“Semi-urban areas with residential low-rise [1-5 stories] buildings are the sweet spot for our operations,” Sällström says. “However, as the system matures, we will pursue operations in practically all-weather conditions and also in densely populated areas.” The team is also trying to improve drone speed and battery life to enable flights to rural and remote areas in the future.
Chan predicts that delivering AEDs via drone will be a regular occurrence in five years. In addition, he says, “The fundamental technology can be applied to a lot of other emergency situations.”
Drones could carry medications for anaphylactic shock and opioid overdose, or bring tourniquets and bandages to trauma victims, Chan suggests. Other researchers are looking at the delivery of glucose for low blood sugar emergencies and the transport of organs for transplant.
The sky is no longer the limit.