Will a drone save your life? The answer is coming sooner than you think

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The uses for unmanned aerial vehicles in agriculture are now more abundant than ever. From checking cattle to studying crop yields, the use of drones by many in agriculture is growing every day.

Someday, a drone may save your life or the life of someone you know and love.

Consider the possible future case of Fictitious Farmer Frank Brown.

FFFB has been cleaning the gutters on his homestead, when he accidentally touches an exposed part of the electric line leading into his house.

FFFB suffers a severe electrical shock. He falls from his ladder and breaks his right leg. The ladder topples over him, breaking his left wrist.

The electricity in the house goes off, which causes FFFB’s daughter Felicity to come out of the house. Seeing the predicament her dad is in, Felicity immediately takes the ladder off him, checks his general condition and begins cardiopulmonary resuscitation. She yells for her mother.

FFFB’s wife, Faye, comes out of the house, sees the situation her husband is in, uses her cellphone to call 9-1-1.

Since Frank, Faye and Felicity Brown live at the edge of the county seat, far from the county ambulance facility and roads are muddy from recent rains, a dispatcher signals a volunteer drone operator/emergency medical technician to prepare and fly a response drone equipped with a Global Positioning System directly from the home of the EMT to within a few feet of Faye and her cellphone, where the drone softly lands on the yard where FFB lays injured.

The drone is equipped with a hard-sided storage box loaded with emergency medical supplies and a video link up with a physician standing by at a remote location to direct Faye and Felicity in how to evaluate FFFB and stabilize his injuries on the scene minutes before the ambulance arrives.

When the drone arrives, the online physician sees FFFB and helps Faye and Felicity with the process of placing him on oxygen, returning FFFB’s heart into a normal rhythm with an automated electronic defibrillator, and placing both his leg and arm into inflatable splints.

Not only has FFFB’s heart function returned, but precious brain function has been spared in the minutes prior to when the ambulance arrives, as the EMTs or paramedics complete the immediate care FFFB needs before getting him to the hospital, where his head is given a CT scan to check for any possible closed head injuries (it’s fine), his heart is given a through going over (it’s fine, too), his electrical burn treated and his bones are properly set in plaster casts.

Learning from experience

This is one extreme scenario, but the uses for medical drones have been thoughtfully considered for several years, particularly by one physician who’s been promoting the concept since his community was devastated by an EF4 tornado in 2013, a storm that injured 82 people and caused more than $38 million in damage.

Italo Subbarao, D.O., senior associate dean and chief operating officer of the William Carey University College of Osteopathic Medicine in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, saw the carnage of a tornado that struck his city and sent his students out to study how quickly emergency medical teams had responded to the disaster. The students found fallen trees, power lines and debris had slowed emergency medical responders as they tried to reach the injured.

“We got lots of information from first responders saying, ‘We told a lot of people, we will get to you as soon as we can.’ It left us all saying can we do more,” Subbarao said.

Subbarao spoke at the recent meeting of the Association of Health Care Journalists, at Orlando, Florida.

That research led Subbarao, along with a student—and drone enthusiast—who’s now a graduate, Guy Paul Cooper Jr., D.O., to imagine if there was a way to deliver medical care before even trained emergency responders could navigate around the turmoil that comes with a natural or man-made disaster.

Merging technology

Their answer was the Health Integrated Rescue Operation System. By merging the technologies of drones and telemedicine, a doctor from miles away could theoretically instruct even a frightened lay person at the scene in how to provide simple, but perhaps life-saving, medical care.

HIRO Systems’ unmanned drones are equipped with a waterproof case of emergency medical supplies and a link up such as a tablet computer with a physician standing by at a remote location to direct the uninjured—whether family, friends or bystanders—in how to stabilize and treat sick and injured people on the scene.

The drones carry a suitcase with medical supplies and equipment. Bystanders communicate with the physician via an optical head mounted display or box-mounted camera and display. This way, the doctor could tell the bystander to direct the camera at the affected part of the patient’s body.

The bystander could then be instructed where place remote sensors in the suitcase on the patient, allowing the physician to receive readings on blood pressure, temperature, heart rate, blood sugar or pulse oxygen levels, then administer immediate treatment.

“Our thought was we could use this system as a bridge to get over all the barriers you think of in a disaster and get timely life-saving medical care to a patient,” Subbarao said. “Because I’m a D.O., I believe in holistic medical care, I want to empower the bystander in the field and bring systems to the field because systems save lives.”

Challenged by rules

But to date, very few of those possibilities of medical drones have been realized, in part because of the Federal Aviation Administration rules requiring non-military drones to be operated only within the pilot’s line of sight, during daylight hours and at altitudes no higher than 400 feet.

Undaunted, Subbarao and Cooper started building several interactive medical kits geared toward different types of emergencies from allergic reactions and heart attacks to shootings and tornadoes, and tried them with their the first two drone prototypes in 2014. Then, looking for additional expertise, they joined forces with the unmanned aircraft systems program at Hinds Community College in Raymond, Mississippi.

They now have three copter prototypes of varying sizes capable of carrying medical kits weighing up to 20 pounds. (The legal limit for drones in the U.S. is 55 pounds.) So far, the project has been financed by the schools, but the inventors said they will soon begin seeking grants to continue the work.

“We are still completing the testing and design phase, and as we move into the production phase we can better estimate these numbers,” Cooper said in an interview. “While there are many pricing models, we would like to keep the cost under or at the price of an ambulance.”

The pair has already held several successful demonstrations, including one in December for representatives of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, various federal law enforcement agencies and the United Nations, according to research by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

They also have made several YouTube videos demonstrating the concept of the HIRO System at work and are now attempting to develop a plan with the Mississippi State Department of Health to integrate medical drones with current emergency systems, with a plan to put the plan in operation before the end of the year.

Still, questions on the viability of the HIRO System remain, primarily on the issues of operating a medical drone far beyond line-of-sight, day or night. Speed also is an issue, as the current HIRO prototypes can only fly at speeds up to 40 miles per hour.

Subbarao, Cooper and the HCC faculty who are helping them admit the FAA has not yet been helpful in granting them free use of the airspace to test their ideas, however the agency does grant exemptions to their rules.

“Currently, emergency permissions can be given within two hours of request,” Cooper said. “We are working closely with the FAA and Mississippi Emergency Management Agency to secure flights beyond line of sight for disaster response.”

Liability questions

There also is the issue of possible liability for the bystander to render care for a stranger. According to Family Practice Management, the journal of the American Academy of Family Practitioners, some key points to remember about Good Samaritan law is that, in most states:

There is no legal obligation to provide Good Samaritan care.

If aid is given, it need be stabilization only, such as what is in the scenario of FFFB’s survival from near electrocution.

The recipient of aid must not object to aid being rendered; implied consent exists if the victim lacks capacity to consent.

According to Cooper, those rules should ease the mind of bystanders offering to help a sick or injured stranger aided by a medical drone, especially once contact is made with a physician.

“The liability will rest upon the physician providing the care,” Cooper said.

Despite the challenges, Subbarao, a 2006 White House Fellow, sees growth in medical drones just as telemedicine systems have skyrocketed in the last 10 years, and that’s why he’s excited about the mix of technology with clinical care to help patients in remote locations.

“It’s projected to be a $227 billion industry by 2025. Greater than 80 percent of all hospitals have a remote medicine strategy. The positive return on investment is really driving all of this,” Subbarao said.


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