6 ways drones are improving life-saving response, rescue and recovery efforts

By: Benjamin Powers

How UAVs are helping people around the world

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When you think of drones, you may envision a buzzing quadcopter in the neighborhood park or a lethal machine on a stealth mission. But drones can also be life savers. Surprised? Here are six ways drones can do a lot more for humanity than deliver pizzas.

1. Rescue on the snowy slopes

Several mountain rescue teams are using drones for their recovery missions, utilizing infrared cameras and zoom lenses to track down lost adventurers. In Aspen, the nighttime scope on a vehicle helped locate a hiker lost in a heavily wooded area. A Scottish climber who went missing on the Himalayas’ Mount Godwin-Austen – the second-highest mountain in the world – might have never been found without the assistance of a UAV. It won’t be surprising if other park safety teams and mountain resorts start using the approach for tracking down stranded travelers.

“Drones allow first responders to go over physical obstacles like downed power lines and floods to obtain real time situational awareness on an incident, and to begin search and rescue efforts and re-establish communication via communication relays,” says Dr. Italo Subbarao who co-founded Health integrated Rescue Operations (HIRO), a company developing emergency medical support systems.

2. Drone ambulances take to the sky

In Papua New Guinea, the organization Doctors Without Borders used drones to transport TB test samples from a remote village. The UAVs can carry objects that weigh as much as five pounds to locations up to 30 minutes away.

“Drones are being customized to deliver medical packages to given locations,” explains Subbarao, who is also Associate Dean, Pre-Clinical Sciences & Associate Professor of Clinical Sciences at William Carey University College of Osteopathic Medicine. “We at HiRO Telemedical Systems have designed a range of ambulance drones that will deploy a variety of medical kits that have a telemedical capability to support individuals in times of disaster and emergency.”

3. Aiding in critical ways after natural disasters

Duke Energy uses drones to assess the weather damage after disasters such as Hurricane Florence. The goal? To go places that trucks and people can’t and restore hurricane victims’ electricity. Florence’s flooding only allowed a few cars and trucks through the water. Duke's Manager of Unmanned Aerial Systems Jacob Velky told public radio that drones helped diagnose the damaged infrastructure.

“When the flooding recedes we have the reconnaissance of what that damage is going to look like and we can preposition the tools, materials and the people to get the lights on in those flooded areas as quickly as possible after the water recedes,” he explained.

Verizon has also been testing a 200 pound drone with a 17 foot wingspan that could provide cellular service to areas that lose coverage in the aftermath of a storm.

4. Fighting cardiac arrest

Only 10 percent of people who face sudden cardiac arrest survive because paramedics can’t get to them on time. Researchers in Canada studied 53,000 cardiac arrests over a 10-mile region around Toronto to see whether drones could help deliver care to faster than other methods. With drones as first responders, they can get necessary care to victims over 10 minutes faster than traditional 911 methods.

Drone programs are also being developed to quickly bring automatic external defibrillators (AEDs), which can shock the heart back to life. While an engineering grad student at the Delft University of Technology, Alec Momont built a prototype of an ambulance drone containing an AED, camera, and a microphone and speakers. Controlled by a paramedic and able to reach top speeds of 60 mph, the drone's cameras and speakers allow the paramedic to give instructions to people near the victim. The defibrillator then operates automatically once placed on the cardiac arrest victim’s chest.

5. Casing car crashes

At the scene of a car crash, police investigators generally use chalk marks, roller wheels, and measuring tape to record evidence such as skid marks and understand what happened. Now some stations are taking to the sky, using a drone to capture an aerial photo from above soon after the crash occurs, which provides a much more detailed measurement than humans ever could. They can then reconstruct what happened more easily.

“It’s about a hundred times more detailed than what we could do with people taking the measurements,” Chief Deputy Jeff Lower told Stateline. “And it means that there’s much less time for the road to be closed and traffic to be backed up.”

6. Killing the buzz and fighting disease

Forget tiki torches, there’s a new way to tackle mosquitoes, which in many places are a risk to public health because of diseases they carry. A United Nations agency has successfully tested a drone that releases sterile mosquitoes into the environment with the express aim to suppress the spread of deadly viruses like Zika. Doing so cuts down on the number of mosquitoes and lowers the likelihood of an epidemic breaking out.

Another way drones are taking on this problem is by trapping mosquitoes on reconnaissance missions. They transport the bugs to labs where scientists can take the mosquitoes’ blood and test it for diseases and other threats to public health. Doing so helps warn health experts of spreading diseases like dengue fever, before they break into a full-fledged epidemics.

For additional resources, please visit the following:

Spotting a climber in the Himalayas

Heart attack life saver

Car crash surveillance

Duke Energy recovery systems

Fighting disease with drones

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About the author(s): 

Benjamin Powers is a freelance journalist based in New York City.  He writes about technology, privacy, and the military. His writing has appeared in Rolling Stone, the Wall Street Journal, and the New Republic, among others.