Turn on ESPN and you can now see contestants racing drones through abandoned malls in heated competition. Yes, drone racing is a multi-million dollar, mainstream sport. Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), have become almost commonplace.
But it’s not all fun and games. Drones have serious, potentially life-saving applications in the field of medicine. They could become an EMS professional’s advance guard, trusty companion, and even their eyes. Check out what lies ahead for EMS drone technology.

Drone Technology Today

Drone technology is changing fast. Current models, capable of carrying a payload, can cost from $4,000 to $10,000. Some can carry up to 20kg, or 44 pounds! Flight time ranges from 30 to 60 minutes, with a range of about 20 to 60 miles. In a few years, those capabilities could easily double.
Prior to 2016, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) prohibited UAVs in U.S. airspace. So, American companies began testing drones in remote areas in foreign countries. Those places often had a need for accessible emergency medical care following natural disasters or disease outbreaks, since they were hard to access. Drones can travel rugged terrain and into tight spaces without risk to a flight crew.

Using EMS Drone Tech Abroad

Some early applications have been to deliver blood, which expires after a few days, or expensive and rarely used drugs. For remote medical facilities that don’t typically stock large amounts of blood or plasma, or certain drugs, the ability to get those things quickly means the difference between life and death.
Those testing the technology have been working on obstacles such as how to keep blood products at the proper temperature, and to prevent tampering during transit.
Earlier in 2017, NPR reported on a project using drones to carry AEDs to people who are in cardiac arrest. Researchers tested the program in rural areas in Sweden, where patients typically have to wait half an hour for emergency services. The drones reduced response time by a median of 16.5 minutes. There are other situations where a drone-delivered AED could potentially beat an ambulance to the scene, treating the patient within the critical first three minutes.

How EMS Could Use Drones in the U.S.

The Federal Aviation Administration released its first set of guidelines for non-recreational drones in mid-2016. Regulations took effect in October-December of that year. People wishing to receive remote pilot certification need to take the Aeronautical Knowledge Test and complete an FAA Airman Certificate and/or Rating Application. (Learn how at FAA.gov.)
Amazon made headlines with its first drone delivery in March 2017. Medical applications may not catch the public attention in the same way, but innovators are hard at work. NASA partnered with Australian company Flirtey to fly a drone carrying medicine to a pop-up clinic in Virginia. The drone transported 10 pounds of medicine, in three trips, over the course of 30 minutes.
Dr. Italo Subbarao, of William Carey University College of Osteopathic Medicine, is testing delivery of “telemedical” packages to victims and rescue personnel. Medical drone technology could soon be used in more commonplace situations. Car accidents, say when a car rolls off of the road to a hard-to-reach location, take a long time for rescue workers to reach.

What’s Ahead for EMS Drone Tech

It may not be long before drones provide not only supplies, but on-site medical expertise. Dr. Suubbarao told NBC News that medical personnel are testing Google Glass to get eyes and ears on a remote emergency scene. This way, a professional can see and hear what is happening and give instructions to victims or other lay persons on site.
UAEs may soon get larger, too. Urban Aeronautics in Israel, has been testing the Cormorant UAV, a sort of unmanned flying ambulance. This vehicle is quieter and more compact than a helicopter, making it easier to reach treacherous disaster sites.
Another study is working on the ICARUS program (for Inbound, Controlled, Air-Releasable, Unrecoverable Systems). It focuses on small, unmanned cardboard gliders. These could drop off supplies and then crash and biodegrade.

Whatever comes next, the medical community is sure to explore options that make them more nimble and more efficient. If new technology can save lives, they will figure out how to make it work.
Dennis Lott, director the unmanned aerial vehicle program at Hinds Community College in Mississippi sums it up, saying, “We think it’s just a matter of time before drone technology is universally adopted for emergency and disaster response.”

Photo credit: 13082 / CC0 Public Domain