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Defibrillator drones close in on heart attacks in the US

Drones promise to cut a lot of corners when it comes to delivering items, but that may prove particularly important when it comes to providing urgent medical attention. We are seeing this play out in Africa with the airborne delivery of blood samples, and another example involves treatment of heart attacks. Startup Flirtey is working on a system where defibrillators are carried by drone directly to the site of a cardiac arrest, where every passing minute can lower the chances of survival.

Using drones to reduce emergency response times to cardiac arrest is an idea that has been bandied about for a few years. Back in 2014, a graduate student from Holland’s Delft University developed a prototype Ambulance Drone, designed to carry a defibrillator to the scene of a heart attack and, through an integrated webcam, allowed emergency operators to instruct people on the ground on how to use it.

Then earlier in the year, a study out of the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden found that so-called defibrillator drones get the gear to the scene four times faster than traditional emergency services. While these first responders can get to the scene relatively quickly, brain death and fatalities can occur within just minutes of a cardiac arrest, so every second really is crucial.

Now Flirtey, which has previously teamed up with Domino’s, 7-Eleven and NASA for various drone delivery trials, is working on a service it hopes will bring automated external defibrillators (AED) to cardiac arrest sufferers in the US. It is collaborating with the Regional Emergency Medical Services Authority (REMSA) for the venture, and hopes to dramatically cut its response times and save lives as a result.

Once up and running, it would mean that when REMSA’s centers receive a 911 call about a cardiac arrest, an ambulance would be dispatched as normal, but so too would a Flirtey drone with an AED in tow. It would fly directly and autonomously to the scene, making it possible for bystanders to begin treatment while waiting for the paramedics to arrive.

“What makes our delivery process unique is that our drones do not land,” Flirtey CEO Matt Sweeney tells New Atlas. “We have designed, developed, tested and fielded the technology to lower packages out of the air from a Flirtey drone on a tether, because it is the safest method of delivery. It allows the Flirtey drone to hover above power lines and trees and deliver packages with precision. We are also testing various rapid-open packaging concepts to ensure the fastest access to the lifesaving AED device.”

US regulation of drone delivery has loosened a little in the last couple of years, but as it stands, having unmanned aircraft fly beyond the line of sight is prohibited, ruling out any immediate implementation of this system. Sweeney does say, however, that the wheels are turning.

“We’re working with REMSA on the necessary regulatory approvals, and combining Flirtey’s flight planning software into REMSA’s highly-specialized patient care and transport programs,” he tells New Atlas. “In addition to its ground ambulance system, REMSA also operates Care Flight, an FAA-approved airplane and helicopter air ambulance service. Along with working together on FAA approvals, we’re also developing an important public education campaign focused on integrating emergency drone AED delivery into the communities we serve. We intend to launch in 2018.”

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