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Saving Lives in the Skies: Using drones to save lives

Last updated on

March 8, 2017


    We all know they take astonishing bird’s-eye shots, survey vast sites and might even be the postmen and food delivery drivers of the future. But drones have another, increasingly important use: they can save lives. Whether it’s finding lost sailors, identifying earthquake survivors, or transporting blood to disaster-hit areas, drones are starting to play a vital role in emergency services all over the globe. And what we’re seeing now, say experts, is just the beginning of how their potential might be tapped.

    Overcoming tough terrain

    It’s hard to provide vital services in many parts of the developing world. Crumbling or non-existent roads, unpredictable floods and other natural disasters, rockfalls that block supply routes: all these factors make it difficult or impossible for even the toughest of all-terrain jeeps to get through. It’s the same when it comes to landing helicopters. But drones, of course, don’t have this problem. A recent pilot project in Malawi from UNICEF’s Office of Innovation shows their huge potential in getting life-saving services to as many people as possible: a drone was used to take blood samples from newborn babies from a clinic to a laboratory, where they can be tested for HIV. The trip is just six miles long but bad conditions mean it can take between several hours and several days on a motorbike. By drone, it takes 20 minutes.

    Malawi has one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world – ten per cent of the population are infected – and early diagnosis can make a huge difference to survival rates. But there are just eight specialist screening laboratories in the country, which most people can’t access – meaning many wait months for a diagnosis. Drone technology could change all that.

    Blood supplies

    Drones are also now being used across Africa to deliver lifesaving supplies, such as blood and medicine. Last year, the world’s first national drone delivery service was launched in Rwanda, a partnership between UPS, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, and robotics company Zipline. The service will despatch up to 150 drones a day, to get vital blood and medical supplies into remote areas where flooding during the rainy season can wipe out road access in minutes.

    The drones – known as Zips – can fly a 150 km round trip, even in bad weather — and carry 1.5kg of blood, which is enough to save a person’s life. Blood is especially important as in Rwanda bleeding after giving birth is the leading cause of death for pregnant women.

    “Drones have the potential to revolutionise the way we reach remote communities with emergency medical supplies. The hours saved delivering blood products or a vaccine for someone who has been exposed to rabies with this technology could make the difference between life and death,” says Dr Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.

    Shark spotting

    Australia’s first drone pilot school has just opened in New South Wales. It will train lifeguards to use UAVs which can drop lifejackets and shark shields to struggling swimmers.
    But drones aren’t just helping to save swimmers already in trouble – they’re enabling them to avoid trouble in the first place. In New South Wales, Australia, trials using drones to spot sharks have been taking place as part of a $16m, five-year strategy aimed at reducing the number of shark attacks. A similar trial has just completed in Western Australia, where 14 swimmers have died in shark attacks since 2000. Plans are also afoot to develop a ‘shark spotting algorithm’ allowing drones to work out by themselves which shapes in the water are sharks, and which are swimmers.

    Refugee routes

    Drones are also on the frontline in the fight to save the lives of refugees who make the perilous Mediterranean Sea crossing in dangerous, overcrowded boats, with little or no lifesaving equipment. Former Afghani refugee Mehdi Salehi is the founder of the Drones for Refugees project, using solar-powered drones with wireless internet connections to survey known refugee sea routes. The drones send information including the number of people on a boat, whether they have lifejackets and their position, meaning that emergency services can be quickly directed to the boat if things go wrong.

    Fighting fires

    The UK’s firefighters rescue an incredible 38,000 people every year. It’s a vital service but a highly dangerous job where drones could make a difference. Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service now uses an Air Unit – an infra-red heat sensor camera which is attached to a battery-operated quadcopter and controlled from the ground. The operator can see where the fire is going, how hot it is, and direct fire crews accordingly. And in the US, where massive forest fires can devastate huge areas of woodland and frequently threaten populated areas, drones are being trialled that can collect and drop water onto areas of fires which are too dangerous for crewed aircraft to attend, whether that’s because of too-hot air or poor visibility from thick smoke.

    Signs of life

    When natural disasters such as earthquakes and floods hit, time is of the essence. China, a country which has suffered particularly badly from earthquakes, is already using UAVs to locate survivors. Their drones are equipped with infra-red scanning technology that enables operators to find people who are still alive and get help to them as soon as possible. They also help to identify problems for emergency services, such as collapsed bridges or choked roads. Drones arrived along with emergency workers following Nepal’s 2015 earthquake and helped to identify devastated areas using 3D mapping technology.

    In the future, drones could even help work out the extent of a survivor’s injuries. The Wireless Research Centre at Canterbury University, New Zealand, is currently researching how multiple ‘swarm’ UAVs might work together to complete complex tasks. This could involve drones collecting information from Body Area Networks (BANs), devices which can be worn and used to monitor patient data such as heart rate and body temperature.

    Everyday emergencies

    Although drones are proving hugely useful in remote areas and developing countries, they could also become a feature of emergency medicine in the developed world, too. Drones currently in development could not only deliver the equipment needed for an emergency situation – everything from defibrillators to bandages to drugs – but also the expertise needed to use that equipment. The Telemedical Drone Project (HiRO, the Health Integrated Rescue Operations) does just that.

    Developed at the William Carey University College of Osteopathic Medicine in the US, it uses Google Glass to allow a doctor miles away to see through the drone’s camera and instruct a person at the scene. Two drones have been developed: one suitable for treating one person with severe injuries, the other for up to 100 people who have significant to minor injuries. There’s clearly a great need for this kind of innovation: last year, Google took out a patent for a drone that could deliver appropriate medical supplies, from defibrillators to Epipens used to treat severe allergic reactions.

    Safety on site

    Inspecting industrial structures, from high chimneys to offshore oil rigs, can be a hazardous business, particularly in bad weather conditions. Yet these inspections have to be done to ensure the safety of everyone who lives in the area, or works there. Drones are increasingly being used in these areas – not to replace the highly experienced inspectors, but to make their lives easier.

    Drones are already being used in the US to inspect power lines in areas such as the Catskill Mountains, near New York, the sites of which can be difficult for inspectors to reach. Last year, the Financial Times reported that drones are now being used to inspect everything from wind turbines to to railway lines, with BP using them to inspect pipelines in Alaska, while Italian oil and gas provider Eni recently announced that it would be using drones to inspect its facilities.

    Clearing the air

    Air pollution kills hundreds of thousands every year and in China, drones are already being used on a number of fronts to fight it. Drones equipped with cameras and sensors can fly over the worst-affected areas and send back data for operators to study, while also helping to identify those factories which are the worst offenders: the colour of smoke coming from a factory chimney, for example, can be a giveaway.

    Yet drones aren’t just being used to find pollution but also to fight it. The environment ministry is testing UAVs which are capable of spraying chemicals that stop pollutants falling to ground level by ‘freezing’ them in the air. These could be used when smog levels are at their highest. And scientists at Imperial College, London are currently working on drones which could ‘perch’ on high buildings to monitor pollution and are equipped with tiny air quality sensors.

    Feeding the world

    As the world’s population increases, finding ways to make farming more efficient without damaging the environment are more important than ever. Drones are likely to play a huge part in that. Analysts PriceWaterhouseCoopers estimate that the market in agricultural drone-powered solutions is worth $32.4 billion. The high-resolution images drones can provide enable farmers to identify areas of soil which need more or less fertilisation, pick up early signs of disease and check the condition of animals – essential on huge farms where fields can stretch for miles, and physically inspecting every inch is impossible. They’re also being used to spray crops far more efficiently by automatically adjusting for altitude, and to use water more efficiently – thermal sensors can identify which areas of a large field are driest and need the water most. Future applications might include drones being used to actually plant seeds and nutrients

    Saving lives at sea

    Every second counts when a swimmer is in trouble. Lifeguards react as quickly as they can, but when a beach is crowded and a swimmer is panicking, it’s incredibly hard to reach them in time. Drones are already playing a part in making beaches safer. Last year, a German company, Microdrones, tested its md4-1000 quadcopter in partnership with Germany’s national lifeguard association. The drone’s carbon fibre housing and integrated GPS system allows it to fly and stay in one position even in strong winds, while its video system shows the operator exactly where its target is.

    A video of the test posted on YouTube shows one lifeguard swimming out towards a struggling swimmer, while another operates the drone from the shore. The drone drops a float to the swimmer, who can grab it and stay safe until the first lifeguard arrives. Robert Rink of the lifeguard association says that he has ‘no doubt’ that drones will play a huge part in the future of water rescue. ‘And we’ll see less fatalities as a result,” he adds.


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