Drones equipped with AEDs were proven to deliver services 7 minutes quicker than ambulances. Credit: Renfrew County

Published: October 14th, 2019

Every second counts when someone is having a heart attack, and paramedics in Eastern Ontario have found a way to cut seven precious minutes out of the time it takes to get automated external defibrillators (AEDs) to victims.

“In a case of cardiac arrest, for every minute that goes by your likelihood or chance of survival decreases by about 10 per cent. Seven minutes quite literally mean the difference between life and death,” said Mike Nolan, the paramedic chief for Renfrew County, in an interview with IT World Canada. “It’s the reason that we put our lights and sirens on when we’re driving on the road. It doesn’t help us get there an hour faster. It helps us get there those precious seconds and minutes earlier. A seven minute advantage is a huge advantage.”

Renfrew County was able to achieve this during its recent trials using drones equipped with AEDs, as well as other medical supplies for overdoses and allergic reactions.

Aimed at servicing those having a heart attack in remote or distant areas, the drones were consistently able to reach the destination seven minutes quicker than EMS services in an ambulance.

“Given the large area and varied terrain that the county encompasses, it is often difficult to get paramedics to patients in a timely fashion, so we have taken a layered approach to their response. We have been successfully using drones to support our emergency responders for several years, but until now, the operators have had line-of-sight of the situation. We will now have further reach than ever,” explained Nolan. “What’s particularly innovative and exciting about this trial is the potential of drone-delivered AEDs to have a transformative impact on emergency care for patients suffering cardiac arrest, especially those in remote private, residential or rural settings, where getting emergency treatment rapidly is the difference between life and death.”

In partnership with InDro Robotics Inc., a B.C.-based drone supplier, Ericsson, and Cradlepoint, this trial is a continuation of work that Renfrew County has done with InDro Robotics.

A Renfrew County EMS worker equips a drone with medical supplies. Credit: Renfrew County.

Nolan says the idea for the use of drones came about around six years ago from a member of his team who had served in Afghanistan and had used drones for various vital tasks while on duty.

“We are exploring the opportunities that might exist for the use of drones to be able to increase our situational awareness and be able to move towards delivering time-sensitive objects…  and being able to not only reduce our response time but improve the reach of our service in difficult to access areas,” he said.

The partnership with InDro Robotics has led to the development of drones as a means of a line of site into situations involving active shooters or a person falling through the ice.

The major difference between their past work over the last six years and this newest venture is that the drones are now connected to a cellular network instead of radio frequencies, which Nolan says has increased the reliability and range of the drone. He noted that it was InDro Robotics that suggested bringing Ericsson and Cradlepoint into the fold to make these newest capabilities possible.

Using beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) drones supplied by InDro Robotics and equipped with 4G LTE connectivity and real-time video streaming supplied by Ericsson and Cradlepoint, the drones were able to operate autonomously (with the ability for a pilot to take over when needed) in a 10-mile range, reaching pre-selected GPS points to deliver the AED services much quicker than the usual means.

Upon arrival, the drone provides voice commands for using the AED to someone on scene, with the option for text instructions on a screen equipped to the drone.

While the world is looking towards the looming capabilities of 5G networks, Nolan says they moved forward with 4G LTE because they cannot afford to wait when it comes to saving lives. But Refrew County does have its eyes set on 5G, and Nolan expects to be ready for it once it’s available.

“The first person that we’re serving from a cardiac arrest perspective doesn’t have minutes to wait, let alone month or years. We need to not only prove out some technological concepts, but have a service to deliver,” said Nolan. “From my perspective, the transferability of the lessons learned from what we’re doing today and the connectivity of what we’re doing today only sets us up to be the very first from a 5G perspective.”

Another possibility that has those involved excited is the possibility of deploying AED-equipped drones into even more rugged and remote areas, like Indigenous communities in Northern Canada.

Heather Read, the director of business development in Canada for Cradlepoint, said that this is something they’re already looking into.

“As this drone solution is further developed, it has to be hardened because the weather in Canada is highly unpredictable. They’ve got to be able to fly through ice and snow and rain and humidity and all kinds of things,” said Read. “With this durability for weather conditions, this would then be a possibility to bring up North into remote Indigenous communities where it’s difficult to deliver supplies.”

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