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Help from above

Drones and sensors could play a role in delivering health care to anyone who needs it -- anytime and anywhere

A year ago, flying drones were an oddity, a geek toy – and now, they will likely quickly evolve into a life saving technology. In the following article, flying drones are being tested for delivering life saving defibrillators to a remote site. Flying at speeds of up to 100 km/h, they can get to places at a rate that other services cannot match. Even a helicopter must take off and be able to land to deliver equipment. And these extra seconds can make all the difference.

In a previous blog post, I spoke of the unique use-case for such flying drones after, Gd forbid, a major natural or human-caused disaster. The most important thing to establish immediately after a large-scale disastrous event, is communication. Without communication, there is no way to direct resources to where they are needed, to get help via remote consulting, for the general public to get critical information about safety procedures and for trapped individuals to be able to communicate with the police via their cellular devices.

From the user’s point of view, a signal asking for help can be generated by a number of devices. Clearly, a mobile phone is the best option as it allows for GPS locating, as well as full two-way communication to deal with acute emergency situations until help arrives. If the mobile network is still fully functioning, a person with a mobile phone can even broadcast images and movies of the surroundings, which can help emergency personnel understand where and to what degree damage has occurred.

A signal can also be generated by a small pin like device that constantly sends a signal which can be picked up by a flying drone or rescue worker’s mobile phone. I am actually surprised that such clip on locators are not totally widespread already. I would have imagined that by now, every parent would have made sure to clip such a locating device onto the clothes of every child under the age of five. Above this age, there are now solutions that have the external appearance of a smart watch [so that the child is not embarrassed to be wearing a tag from his “mommy”].

Subcutaneous tags are also an option, and I expect that by the time my children’s children will be in University, it will be commonplace to have such tags implanted in children. Even within the Jewish world, no parent will wait as long as eight days after birth to “modify” their children. In the delivery room, in full view of the mother, the child will have a device pressed against his arm or back, and this will inject a near microscopic tag that has a tremendous range, and that guarantees universal identification forever.

From that point on, if the child is moved in a way that is inconsistent with the parents’ needs and/or the law, the proper authorities will be alerted. This means that such a chip will not only protect against kidnapping, but will also alert the authorities in the event that the child is severely shaken, consistent with abuse. When my child’s child reaches the age of 18, he or she can then complain about how I invaded his or her privacy throughout their youth. Considering  that this same chip will likely be a universal form of identification as well as a replacement for today’s credit cards and even “Apple pay”, I don’t expect this  to be a major fight.

All this is fine and good as long as you have a sensor close enough to pick up the signal. And that is why I am so personally excited by the potential of robotic drones to dramatically improve healthcare. As I noted in the past, one set of drones can create an ad hoc wireless network which covers the entire breadth of a disaster area. As such, within an hour of the event, one could already fill the skies with these devices and reestablish full scale communication. For many people, the ability to continue to download YouTube videos so soon after the disaster, will prove that everything will be okay.

Another critical use for these robotic drones will be the delivery of life-saving devices and medications to the exact spot where they are needed. As described in the article I linked to above, a flying drone will be able to get  a defibrillator to a patient in time to make a difference. When a person, especially an older individual, has a heart attack and collapses into unconsciousness, there is effectively a four minute window during which it is still possible to resuscitate the patient and achieve a dramatic recovery. If the patient is left unconscious and not breathing for too long, brain damage ensues and the likelihood of significant recovery quickly drops to zero.

A flying drone, going at speeds of 60 miles an hour and carrying a defibrillator and the basic medications  to handle  a cardiac arrest, could unquestionably saves the lives of many people. The standard today is to call 911 [in the United States], to answer a few questions and to specify the location at which the patient is found. There is no reason why an app could not be developed that with a single press of a button,  sends the GPS coordinates of the patient to the emergency services. In addition, the same app would allow for the patient to be photographed which would possibly give some additional information before emergency services arrive. Ideally, there would be a way to identify the patient so that the entire medical record could be made available to the paramedics as they are driving to the site.

So imagine this scenario where the paramedics exit the ambulance, already having seen the patient by photograph, knowing the patient’s history via the EMR and having  the defibrillator and key medications ready and charged next to the patient. If the defibrillator is one of the automated types, a layperson standing next to the patient could already deliver the first critical shocks that may awaken the patient from his or her life-threatening arrhythmia, even before the paramedics arrive. Whatever the case may be, this scenario demonstrates how tracking a patient and being able to quickly deliver needed equipment and medications to the patient’s side, can make all the difference in achieving survival.

Flying drones, self driving drones, swimming drones – all of these will become standard relatively soon. A swimming drone could constantly peruse the water of a swimming pool or even a beach, and identify people in distress. At that moment, the swimming drone would go to the submerged swimmer and lift the swimmer out of the water. The drone could even have an oxygen tank on its back, for use by the troubled swimmer. How many lives would have to be saved before it became illegal to have a swimming pool, whether in a hotel or even at home, without the protection of a swimming drone?

Drones are a very different type of technology simply because they are overtly visible. Antivirus programs, data centers, Microsoft Office – these are all pieces of technology that we rely on every day. But most people don’t see them. Most technologies we use are either series of bits stored on the memory chip in some remote location, or huge devices or management centers that are also hidden far away from the populace. Drones, on the other hand, are evident. You will open your front door in the morning and a drone will hand you your morning newspaper [actually it won’t, because by then, your newspaper will be entirely digital]. The use of drones will spur a whole range of discussions about the invasion of technology into our lives. People will complain that they can no longer see the stars because of all of the drones that fly above.

I personally believe that such complaints will fall on deaf ears. Drones will become such a critical part of our lives, that we will wonder how we managed before them [in the same way we now wonder, how we managed before smartphones]. Once the physical presence of drones is accepted by the general population, it will become much easier to introduce other technologies that also occupy space in our physical surroundings [like human sized robots that provide various services to humans].

I would not even dare predict how long it will be before the drones, and more so robots, are part of our day-to-day lives. I am sure that whatever I predict, it will be an overestimation. Our goal has to be to always focus on the key singular question – how do these technologies improve the quality of life of people on this planet? We also need to ask: Who will enforce this goal? That is an excellent question.

Thanks for listening

About the Author
Dr. Nahum Kovalski received his bachelor's of science in computer science and his medical degree in Canada. He came to Israel in 1991 and married his wife of 22 years in 1992. He has 3 amazing children and has lived in Jerusalem since making Aliyah. Dr. Kovalski was with TEREM Emergency Medical Services for 21 years until June of 2014, and is now a private consultant on medicine and technology.
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