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Firms collaborate for lifesaving drone delivery

In the not-too-distant future, heart attack victims in Nevada may receive lifesaving assistance from bystanders thanks to a new kind of medical service being developed by drone delivery pioneer Flirtey and regional air and ground ambulance provider REMSA. The two entities are collaborating to deliver automated external defibrillators by drone.

Flirtey, the Nevada company that is developing drones for delivery in a variety of contexts, is working with a regional ambulance company to deliver automatic external defibrillators by drone. Photo courtesy of Flirtey.

Flirtey, the first company to secure FAA approval to test drone delivery, and REMSA, hope to be the first in the United States to deliver the lifesaving technology using drones.

REMSA CEO Dean Dow said Flirtey approached them recently with the idea.

“Matthew Sweeny, CEO of Flirtey, came to our offices in Reno and we both instantly saw the potential and the synergies that both organizations and their respective areas of expertise brought to the table," Dow said.

Dow said unmanned aircraft could play a critical role responding to cardiac emergencies that account for many of the ambulance provider’s calls. “When it comes to cardiac arrest, speed is everything so for every minute that a victim waits to receive defibrillation, their odds of survival decrease by about 10 percent,” Dow said. According to the American Heart Association, cardiac arrest is the leading cause of natural death in America, with more than 350,000 out-of-hospital cases each year.

Sweeny said Flirtey has developed drones that can lower a payload to the ground on a tether, allowing the aircraft to remain safely aloft and away from structures and obstacles.

“The drones fly with a high level of autonomy and there is an operator remotely monitoring the flight from Flirtey’s mission command center who can take over if ever needed,” Sweeny said.

Defibrillator delivery missions would be controlled from REMSA’s communication control center, and utilize a variety of safeguards and backup protocols to ensure safe flights. Flirtey drones are able to navigate to safe landing locations if the battery runs low, or automatically return to the launch point in case of strong winds, low GPS signal, or communication loss.

Sweeny said Flirtey drones use a “combination of technologies and robustly tested operational procedures” to avoid colliding with other aircraft.

“Our delivery drones are equipped with transmitters and will be continuously broadcasting their location and heading in a similar way to how manned aircraft do, with ground operators remotely monitoring the airspace,” Sweeny said. “We regularly test our drones in real-world scenarios, including in a crowded airspace with multiple aircraft being flown in close proximity of each other.”

Dow said that once the AED is delivered, bystanders who may have no medical training can use it to begin critical medical treatment while first responders are still en route.

“The key ingredient in this new way of delivering life-saving technologies is the fact that current AED technology requires no training on the part of the operator and AEDs are beginning to sprout all over shopping centers, airports and any other place where people concentrate in large numbers,” Dow said.

By using drones to deliver AEDs while ground ambulances are still on the way, the combined service will increase the odds of surviving cardiac arrest. Emergency response times for ambulances can sometimes vary depending on their distance from the victim, traffic, call volume, and ultimately the urban characteristics of the victim’s location. Flirtey’s delivery drones will be able fly directly to the victim and deliver critical aid efficiently and with precision. 

“REMSA responds to about 70,000 emergency calls a year through the 911 system and about 18 to 20 percent of these transports are related to heart issues, with a smaller but important percentage of that number in cardiac arrest, and that population is the target of this program. A considerable amount of these patients are within a few minutes of an ambulance, but a certain number of cases are in suburban areas or large industrial complexes where ambulance service will take more time to reach,” Dow said.

“All the technology we need is in place right now, including our next-generation delivery drone, automated flight control, and advanced safety systems, and we’re now working through the regulatory approval process to be able to make our first real life saving delivery,” Sweeny said. “We have worked with NASA, Johns Hopkins University of Medicine, Remote Area Medical, New Zealand Land Search & Rescue, Domino’s, and 7-Eleven to conduct deliveries of medicine to rural healthcare clinics, ship-to-shore deliveries of medical samples, and deliveries of retail and ecommerce items to consumer homes,” Sweeny said.

Dow said that once the system is up and running, a computer algorithm will help dispatchers decide when a drone delivery is called for, analyzing factors such as distance, geographic information, and the patient’s condition and needs.” This will shave valuable minutes from the arrival of heal at the site of the emergency,” Dow said.

Sweeny said they hope to launch the service in 2018 after testing.

“We firmly believe that this is one of the most important uses of drone delivery technology, and by democratizing access to this lifesaving aid, our technology will save more than a million lives over the decades to come,” Sweeny said.

Juan Plaza
Juan Plaza holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in geodesy, digital photogrammetry, and business from Universidad Central de Venezuela, and Florida International University. He has more than 750 hours of photogrammetry navigation and camera operation experience in a variety of aircraft, and holds an FAA commercial pilot certificate with instrument and multiengine ratings. Juan actively promotes safe integration of unnamed aircraft, and has sold unmanned aircraft systems for photogrammetry in Latin America for four years.
Topics: Drone, Technology, Public Benefit Flying

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