Drone Ambulances to the Rescue


How innovative technology is serving needs in rural health emergencies.

Remoteness is what makes family worry about us. It’s true at any age — from a daughter who sets off on a weekend hike into the deep woods to a couple who chooses to age in place in the country with only deer, songbirds and cicadas to keep them company.

But what happens when disaster strikes? According to a recent analysis of over 1.8 million 911 calls, callers in rural areas wait twice as long for an ambulance (on average) than elsewhere. That’s a 13-minute wait in the country vs. a six minute wait in the city or suburbs. Ten percent of folks in rural areas had to wait a full 30 minutes for an ambulance to arrive.

Where Drone Technology Comes In

A Mississippi-based team of doctors is working on a telemedicine technology that could get emergency care to rural areas faster. It’s an aerial ambulance: a drone named HiRO, which stands for Health Integrated Rescue Operations. The team is working on how to make the drone simpler and easier to use — easy enough so that people with no medical knowledge can use it, even when they’re in the middle of a crisis situation.

“The inspiration for using drone-based technology [were] individuals [who] could not reach or communicate with their frail, elderly loved ones due to downed power lines and trees,” said Italo Subbarao, an emergency medicine specialist who came up with the idea for HiRO after a severe tornado hit Hattiesburg, Miss. “First responders saw the messages and responded appropriately, but it took time.”

With the potential to integrate into local emergency 911 systems, each drone carries a medical kit that, when opened on the ground, can help bystanders — family members, neighbors or even you — provide simple medical care until emergency help arrives.

In addition to medicine and supplies stored in small bins that can be unlocked remotely, the drone’s medical kit contains an augmented reality interface that acts as a direct link to a remote, on-call doctor. Once you put the googles on, the doctor can see what you see and help provide medical care.

“We have designed many drone and telemedical package prototypes in the past four years,” said Guy Paul Cooper, Jr., who developed the drone with Subbarao as a medical student at William Carey University College of Osteopathic Medicine.

Cooper and Subbarao say the kits can vary from two to 20 pounds, depending on their purpose. The heaviest kits are meant for mass-casualty events (bioterrorism, mass shootings) and disasters that displace or endanger many people (earthquakes, hurricanes). Smaller kits are more appropriate for search-and-rescue missions in remote areas, including wilderness emergencies.

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