Life-saving drones

After a heart attack, every second counts. Carolina researchers and NC State experts have taken to the air to find a new way to get medical care to the victims faster.

When somebody is having a heart attack, every minute can be a matter of life and death.

“For every minute that goes by without defibrillation, the chance of survival for a heart attack victim goes down 10%,” said Wayne Rosamond, a professor of epidemiology at UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. “The real goal is to get defibrillated within five minutes.”

For bystanders, searching for a nearby automatic external defibrillator to care for the victim can mean wasting critical time as locked doors and other obstacles slow them down.

To increase a victim’s chance of survival, Rosamond has teamed up with UNC School of Nursing assistant professor Jessica Zègre-Hemsey and Evan Arnold from the Institute for Transportation Research and Education at NC State to find a faster way to get an automatic external defibrillator to the scene of a heart attack.

The answer, they learned, could be less running and more flying.

In a study that is among the first of its kind, the team looked at whether autonomous drones could deliver automatic external defibrillators to people not in a hospital who are experiencing cardiac arrest, providing bystanders with access to emergency medical devices before an ambulance arrives or before a defibrillator could be located and obtained on the ground. The study is partially funded by the North Carolina Translational and Clinical Sciences Institute.

“Even though defibrillators may be around in many public spaces, they are rarely used, and many cardiac arrests happen at home where defibrillators are generally not close by. This where a drone can really make a difference,” Rosamond said. “If we can bring the AED to the scene of a cardiac arrest by a drone faster than an ambulance can reach the scene or faster than a bystander can locate and retrieve an AED, it could save lives.”

The partnerships between the schools of public health and nursing at Carolina and NC State’s aerospace engineering and transportation experts has been crucial to the study’s development and success, Rosamond said.

“We’ve combined expertise in drone technology with our interest in cardiovascular epidemiology. We’ve been able to put two very different fields of research together to come up with a really exciting project,” he said. “The team has really been energized by bringing these different areas of expertise together around an important public health problem.”

After extensive drone testing on NC State’s campus, the researchers began testing the feasibility of using drones to deliver defibrillators in Chapel Hill. The team simulated heart attacks throughout the UNC-Chapel Hill campus and recorded the response times as one person searched for a defibrillator on foot and another called for the drone delivery.

Throughout the study, they conducted 36 test flights at Carolina, with a variety of obstacles for the drone to navigate to simulate real-world environments. A majority of the time, the drones arrived to the victim with an AED first.

“The drone is performing very well,” Rosamond “It arrives safely at the scene with an AED almost every time within five minutes. When asked to locate and retrieve a defibrillator their own, participants in the study often take much longer than that.”

With the test flights concluded, Rosamond and the team are looking to expand the impact of the research.

“The goal is to take it beyond the campus environment and try to integrate it with existing emergency medical systems in the community and test its use in other more rural parts of the state,” Rosamond said.