After getting a call about a snowmobiler falling through the ice in Eastern Ontario’s Renfrew County this winter, emergency responders had to try and pinpoint where exactly the victim fell through and determine if their mission was still about rescue. The hole in the ice was more than a kilometre offshore.
High winds and near-white out conditions made it next to impossible for paramedics to spot the hole in the ice, so they turned to their unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) for some assistance. In a matter of minutes, paramedics quickly discovered there was no one clinging to the ice anymore. It had become a recovery mission.
A somber outcome, says the county’s chief paramedic Michael Nolan, but the drone’s work alone may have prevented a first responder from getting killed.
“I strongly believe we prevented further injury or death of a first responder,” he told ITBusiness.ca.
Renfrew’s paramedic service is a pioneer among its peers in Canada when it comes to drone technology. Three years ago it became the first among paramedics in the country to get permission from Transport Canada to fly drones within a pilot’s line of sight. It was a game changer back then, says Nolan, even though at the time, the off-the shelf drone was only able to fly within the operator’s line of site and survey accident scenes.
During one of its first use cases in 2014, Renfrew paramedics deployed their drone to survey a crime scene where an active shooter, who had shot three people, was reportedly spotted. The drone continued to perform reconnaissance until police and other first responders arrived.
“It was a very interesting use case. We collaborated very well with provincial police in the development of our program,” says Nolan.
- An estimated 45,000 cardiac arrests occur in Canada every year, according to the Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation.
- On average, only 10 per cent of people who suffer cardiac arrest outside of a hospital survive.
- Renfrew County paramedics deploy their drones approximately 20 times per year, and that figure is “increasing all the time” says Nolan.
Above: Renfrew paramedics test their drones’ ability to drop a rescue rope and defibrillator. Videos submitted by Renfrew County Paramedics.
The program has come a long way since then. Nolan pushed hard to gain federal approval to fly Renfrew’s five drones beyond the pilots’ field of vision, believing it would expand the UAV’s use cases. Renfrew had to participate in Transport Canada’s accredited training program, become a Transport Canada certified operator after that training was completed and receive a Special Flight Operations Certificate, and lastly, ensure that their UAVs met Transport Canada’s standards of safety.
“We’re one of the very few in Canada that have achieved all of those requirements from Transport Canada … and one of the few who can fly beyond the operator’s line of sight,” says Nolan.
Now they are permitted to fly approximately 4 km in any direction. Four paramedics are currently trained to operate the drones. Nolan says they’re in the process of training an additional 14.
In addition to night vision and heat sensing cameras, the UAV is equipped with AI that helps it make midair adjustments to avoid collisions or, fly back to the operator. It can detect other aircraft, drop a rescue harness and carry and deploy a defibrillator unit. The drone hasn’t had to deploy a defibrillator unit yet, confirms Nolan, but it would be used if someone was having cardiac arrest in an area paramedics couldn’t get to quickly. They’ve also used drones for 3D mosaic mapping.
While other jurisdictions around the world have used drones in rescue missions, Nolan says none compare to what Renfrew County is doing.
“I don’t know of anyone else doing this,” he says.
Neither does Philip Reece.
The founder of InDro Robotics, a B.C.-based drone supplier, Reece says other counties in Ontario are slowly following in Renfrew’s footsteps, but Nolan and his department are “definitely the first” when it comes to advanced drone capabilities within a public sector. InDro has been working closely with Renfrew for several years, carefully upgrading each iteration of their UAV.
“We became very responsive,” says Reece, referring to requests for specific weight and balance requirements and an exterior design that could withstand -30 C weather.
InDro is also working closely with first responders in B.C to monitor wildfires with drones and predict where the fires might spread. The big push for all emergency responders working with drones is to fly further beyond the visual line of sight, says Reece.
Drone delivery could cut minutes off average ambulance response times across province
Strategically positioned drones across Ontario could arrive to calls ahead of ambulances more than 90 per cent of the time, according to a study from the University of Toronto’s Centre for Healthcare Engineering.
Based on historical cardiac arrest data from eight regions in Southern Ontario, including dense urban cities and sparse rural communities, the research group – spearheaded by U of T’s Timothy Chan, Angela Schoellig and Justin Boutilier – determined that 81 bases and 100 drones would be required to deliver a defibrillator, three minutes faster than the average 911 response times. Upon arrival, the drone would carefully deploy the defibrillator – the way the drones in Renfrew are now capable of – and instruct whoever is next to the victim, a family member, friend or bystander, how to use the device.
Nolan says a network of drones working with first responders could work. In Renfrew, politicians understand drones are playing an important role in protecting the community.
“It does figure prominently in our budget,” he says. A single drone outfitted with the latest updates costs around $20-25,000. “We’re actually paying more than that for a stretcher in an ambulance.”