They are devastating events that we're too familiar with: a mass shooter critically wounds victims. A tornado sweeps through a small town, harming dozens. Or a train or plane accident leaves passengers injured.
Often, in such cases, critical minutes pass as victims must wait for an ambulance to arrive. Yet high-tech drones could shorten that waiting period significantly, scientists suggest.
Researchers at William Carey University in Mississippi are studying how disaster drones could carry medical kits to victims in a mass casualty event, before an ambulance arrives. Bystanders could use the kits to help victims, or first responders on the scene could use them when multiple victims are injured.
The disaster drones, which also could deliver medicine to hard-to-reach remote locations, were designed and built at Hinds Community College in Mississippi.
The researchers have various prototypes, said Italo Subbarao, senior associate dean at William Carey University College of Osteopathic Medicine, who is involved in the university's telemedicine drone research project.
"We have a kit that is a general medical emergency kit that we would probably fly to a farmer's home ... for a rural type of general medical emergency," Subbarao said, such as a heart attack.
"We've got kits that are designed to go into the wilderness so that if you're stung by a bee or you've got a snake bite, things of that nature, we can provide assistance in that moment," he said. "Most recently, we demonstrated our trauma kits."
These kits could be used in a mass casualty event like a terror attack or a train crash, or when someone needs critical care. "We look at this as a piece of the puzzle, an important piece of the puzzle, that can connect with the local emergency management system," he said.
Subbarao and his colleagues follow in the footsteps of researchers around the world who are investigating how drones could help save lives and possibly even beat an ambulance to a medical emergency scene.
Which is faster, an ambulance or a drone?
A team of researchers in Sweden recently tested whether a drone or an ambulance had a faster response time in delivering an automated external defibrillator to a patient in cardiac arrest. The device gives instructions to a bystander to use it for checking the heart rhythm and, if needed, sending an electric shock to the heart to try to restore a normal rhythm.
The researchers conducted 18 consecutive flights with the drone, with an average flight distance of 3.2 kilometers, or about 2 miles. They compared the dispatch and travel time of the drone with the dispatch and travel time of emergency medical services.
The researchers found that the drone arrived more quickly than EMS in all cases, with an average reduction in response time of about 16 minutes, and that no adverse events or technical problems occurred during any of the drone flights. During a medical emergency, those minutes can be the difference between life and death. This preliminary study was published in the journal JAMA in June.
Yet much more research needs to be conducted before you could see first-responder drones flying around, delivering medical care.
Certain limitations of the technology include whether a drone could carry heavy medical supplies, could withstand the impact of extreme weather or could limit the risk of technical flukes.
In Mississippi, Subbarao and his colleagues are planning to continue their research.
"For now, we've been working with the Mississippi Emergency Management (Agency) and Mississippi (State) Department of Public Health. We're in conversations with the state agencies to help us study our product, help us refine what we're doing here," Subbarao said.
How a disaster drone works
Whether in Sweden or the United States, how would a disaster drone work? First, each drone should be equipped with medical kits and instructions.
In the US, those kits could incorporate recommendations put forth in the federal Department of Homeland Security's initiative Stop the Bleed, which is intended to help bystanders become trained, equipped and empowered to tend to emergency situations before professional help arrives, according to developers.
A drone also could include audio or video communication systems so that the person who receives it could talk to a doctor for assistance. The researchers in Mississippi have been working with Google Glass and other types of visual technologies for this communications aspect, Subbarao said.
Then, following Federal Aviation Administration regulations, the drones could be flown to an emergency site.
"How do they know where to go? Well, just about everyone has a cell phone out, right? And most of them have their GPS," said Dennis Lott, director of the unmanned aerial systems program at Hinds Community College, who helped develop the disaster drones in Mississippi.
"When events happen, the cell network knows where that phone is located within pretty close proximity, and that information could be transmitted back to emergency management so we know where that is," he said.
The drones also could be outfitted with a variety of sensors, such as infrared, to support traveling to certain locations, according to developers.
Lott said that he sees drones providing the biggest benefit to patients in rural areas.
"Even here, there are people who are pretty isolated that need emergency care," Lott said of his community in Mississippi.
"We could actually take one of these aircraft, and we can just go out there and deliver medicine," he said. "Something as simple as a proper medicine can save lives."