Prompt medical attention saves lives when people are injured in a natural disaster or terrorist attack, but responders are often delayed while the scene is secured, or roads are cleared. That’s where the HiRO drone (Health Integrated Rescue Operations) can play a critical role, delivering much more than bandages: This drone virtually brings a doctor to the scene. Its deployable payload is a custom-made kit that includes Google Glass, eyewear that captures and displays live video.
The Telemedical Drone project that produced the HiRO is a collaboration between a medical school and a community college in Mississippi, inspired in large part by a devastating tornado that struck Hattiesburg, Mississippi, on Feb. 10, 2013, packing 170 mph sustained winds. That twister, one of several that touched down that day in Mississippi and elsewhere, leveled hundreds of homes and damaged schools and other structures in and around Hattiesburg. Eighty-two people were injured.
“We took a deep dive into studying Twitter,” Subbarao said. The social media platform had helped spread the word of the approaching storm, and facilitated communication in the aftermath. Why not, Subbarao thought, take that communication a step further? He and fourth-year medical student Guy Paul Cooper hatched an idea: Deliver the doctor, at least in a virtual sense, straight to the scene by drone, in the form of a kit packed with essential supplies and tools. The concept could give sick and injured people in hard-to-reach areas a better chance to survive and recover.
“In our latest kits, we have employed them with Google Glass,” Subbarao said, referring to a product that AMA envisions as an important new tool for medical training and remote care. A video produced by the medical school demonstrates how the system works in a simulated mass casualty incident.
The HiRO-ic effort was made possible in large part by another group of students and their teacher in an aviation program of Mississippi’s largest community college, about 100 miles from Hattiesburg. That’s where Dennis Lott and his students design and build their own custom drones.
After meeting at a conference, the two teams forged a partnership, “because what he needed I felt we could do as well as anyone here,” Lott recalled in a telephone interview.
The doctor and his students had proved the concept using off-the-shelf drones, but Lott knew that a custom rig (multiple rigs, as it turned out) would be more capable. Lott and his students, who are in a two-year associate degree program in aviation with a specialization in unmanned systems, have built three different aircraft systems so far, with a fourth in progress.
Lott, who has also flown and owned his own manned aircraft, said his program can accommodate about three dozen students a year, though the challenge of finding qualified instructors has forced the school to limit enrollment in his program. UAS program students pay the school’s standard tuition, about $1,200 per semester, and are required to invest another $1,000 to $1,500 per year in tools and equipment to build their own unmanned aircraft systems, one multi-rotor and one fixed-wing, from scratch. That is still less, Lott noted, than the cost of a single DJI Inspire.
“We’re about doing rather than talking,” Lott said of his three-year-old UAS program.
HiRO made its public debut Dec. 6 at the Hinds Community College aviation program’s base, John Bell Williams Airport in Bolton, Mississippi, with an audience of federal law enforcement and homeland security officials, and U.N. representatives as well. Subbarao said that successful demonstration has attracted a wider audience: “We are getting a lot of emails from all over.”
Subbarao said the medical school team continues to refine its telemedical kit, the payload that comes with a virtual doctor in the box. Diagnostic tools, including a pulse oximeter familiar to many pilots who fly at high altitudes, and other devices and supplies are packed into the case, which allows bystanders, and even the injured themselves, to take action under professional guidance while waiting for first responders to arrive.
“Our hope is that it’s a bridge,” Subbarao said. “At least in the moment we can provide some empowerment and certainly provide some guidance.”
Lott and his students have fitted their drones with camera systems (including infrared) as well as a cradle for the medical kit, and those more traditional drone payloads can speed the task of locating victims in many scenarios. Experimentation on a variety of combinations of components continues, Lott said.
The current prototype medical packages can be customized for specific applications, such as a response to a mass shooting or similar event where rescue may be delayed while police secure the scene. Each kit weighs between 10 and 20 pounds, and Subbarao said future models may increase in size and capability, if and when the FAA allows for larger drones to operate; flying drones beyond line of sight also will increase the system’s reach, though that is for the future, Subbarao said. “All the work we’ve done to date is within the FAA’s guidelines.”