How can we deploy drones in healthcare to save lives?

In a groundbreaking trial in Canada’s Renfrew County, rural emergency services recently pitted cellular drones against ambulances. However, there was a twist: the drone’s operators were 4000 KM away in Vancouver. What happened next? Find out below.

Drones in healthcare: emergency service professional with LTE operated drone carrying defibrillator

Sales Director, IoT

Sales Director, IoT

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The deployment of drones today has so far been limited to consumer markets. Yet that could soon be about to change thanks to advancements in cellular technologies, meaning we could soon see drones deployed increasingly across mission-critical and industry applications.

This could change everything. For example, cellular-connected drones could be deployed for automated inspection of critical infrastructure such as roads/highways, bridges, buildings, power stations, nuclear reactors, electrical grids, power dams, railways, pipelines and cell towers. Most of these inspection processes are currently done by humans, which makes them slow, costly and often dangerous.

Another use case, which could have a profound impact on our lives, is the deployment of drones in mission-critical healthcare applications.


Deploying drones in healthcare

To begin, we want to reassure everyone reading this that no manikins were harmed in the running of this trial.

Yes, we’re kidding. But a recent public safety drone trial conducted in partnership with Canada’s Renfrew County Paramedic Services was very serious. When someone experiences cardiac arrest, getting treatment fast is essential. The probability of survival declines by 10 percent with every minute that passes.

Reaching patients in time is hard enough in cities that have highways and hospitals within reach. Rural Renfrew County in Ontario, Canada covers over 2,800 square miles of densely forested, lightly populated, mostly rural terrain. Getting life-saving equipment and medical assistance quickly to its far-flung citizens is a real challenge.

To compensate for the terrain, Renfrew County’s authorities have long turned to technology. For example, the Renfrew Paramedic Service have been using drones in healthcare to deliver automated external defibrillators (AEDs) and medications to remote locations for a while, but those traditional drones were limited to line-of-sight control, guided by an on-site operator.

What if they could expand that distance, making emergency response faster and safer beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS)?

What if, instead of a patient in distress (or worse), emergency medical service (EMS) paramedics could arrive at an emergency to find a patient in a more stable condition, because lifesaving equipment got to the scene while they were in transit?

A race for survival

In fall 2019, Ericsson was part of a groundbreaking trial in Renfrew that pitted EMS ambulances on the ground against drones equipped with automated external defibrillators (AEDs).

The technology partners for the trial included InDro Robotics which supplied the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and Cradlepoint which provided its NetCloud Service, including an on-board, ruggedized Internet of Things (IoT) router. The critical 4G LTE Advanced connectivity was supplied by Ericsson.

Simulating realistic emergency calls, each team was to deliver a defibrillator to 20 remote spots where researchers from the University of Toronto and Ottawa Hospital were waiting. They would use the device to deliver four required shocks to a medical manikin.

These drones were different from Renfrew’s earlier UAVs. Connected by Ericsson’s LTE advanced cellular network, the drones travelled to specific GPS locations across a 16km (about 10 miles) radius—far beyond line of sight. In fact, instead of being in the field holding remote controls as in the past, the pilots were stationed 3,000 miles away in Vancouver.

It makes me proud that Ericsson played a role in bringing this landmark use case to life. The Renfrew County drone trial is just one way of showing how ICT can accelerate the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Learn about other initiatives on our Ericsson SDG page.

The winner? The patient.

The results of the trial were extremely encouraging. During each test run, the drone arrived at least seven to fifteen minutes before the paramedic vehicles. Translated to an actual cardiac arrest, the extra time provided by the drones would greatly improve the patient’s chances for survival in rural areas throughout Canada and the world.

Flying further and doing more through LTE

In a very critical way, 4G LTE was the enabling technology in the trial. Previous drone trials relied on non-cellular technology, which limits them to trips shorter than five miles. By utilizing the LTE cellular network already in place, the drones in the trial were able to reach patients as far as 80 miles (128 kilometers) away.

When ultimately deployed, drones would be able to fly wherever there is cellular service, potentially covering distances as far as 80 miles away to deliver naloxone kits, EpiPens, emergency medications, defibrillator machines and even personal floating devices (PFD) in different emergency response situations.

But that’s not all. The speed, bandwidth and reliability of the LTE cellular network enables the drones to share images and video with operators and employ artificial intelligence (AI) to manage key functions such as collision avoidance. And the pilots could work safely from a facility anywhere in the world, with many resources at hand that would be unavailable out in the field.

5G will unlock amazing potential for good

Moving to cellular was a big leap because a drone is not just about transporting physical items. It’s also a vehicle for data acquisition. As we move towards 5G cellular, we’ll have a much larger pipe with much lower latency for collecting, computing and acting on more data, faster.

Using ultra-high-resolution video, high-resolution sensors (lidar, spectrum analysis, x-rays, etc.) with AI, machine-learning (ML) and analytics, we’ll be able to have drones in many complex missions.

The high-speed cellular data connection allows us to use the drone as a flying data acquisitions platform for numerous inspection applications employing different kinds of sensors that feed into AI/ML systems.

Drones equipped with advanced sensors can perform extremely accurate inspection, saving a digital record of every inspection. We could detect the smallest changes that indicate a dangerous problem and trigger preventative action early on. And we’ll be able to conduct these inspections much more frequently and at a much lower cost.

Instead of individual drones controlled by a pilot onsite, there will be groups of drones, operated by a pilot hundreds of miles away over the cellular connection, that communicate and collaborate with one another to complete a task. Based on the data the drones gather, AI/ML systems can provide real-time analysis of critical situations and help people make higher quality decisions to keep our critical infrastructure operating well—and us all safe.

Our manikins were saved. Who’s next?

Together with the dedicated leaders of Renfrew County, InDro Robotics and Cradlepoint, we showed that 4G LTE networks and drones can be used to advance life-saving services. But that’s just the beginning.

Suppose police could track an active shooter in real time or identify a terrorist threat? Or a farmer using cellular-driven drones could practice precision sustainable agriculture, identifying trees in distress and leveraging data to reduce the amount of pesticides or water used?

The Renfrew County’s public safety drone trial demonstrated how the imaginative use of technology—and the right partnerships—can accomplish a lot of good.

Read more

In another blog post, read how Ericsson is actively developing another emergency drone use case with partners in Europe.

Learn about more future drone use cases across agriculture, traffic and broadcasting in our drones and networks white paper.

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