Researchers at the University of Australia have developed a drone that detects vital signs such as heart and breathing rates remotely, reports the BBC. The drones recognize minute movements in human faces and necks that indicate pulse and respiration. Combined with image processing technology and advanced algorithms, the drones are able to monitor these parameters on more than one person at a time.
The researchers performed the original testing at a distance of 3 meters (10 feet.) However, they believe that advancing technology will allow the drone to detect vital signs from much further away.
Game Changing Technology
The potential applications for the new drone could be “game-changing,” said Dr. Ravi Vaidyanathan, a robotics lecturer at Imperial College London.
For example, it could monitor patients in hospitals in remote areas where sophisticated equipment is unavailable. It could safely assess victims of motor vehicle and boating accidents from a distance, long before first responders arrived. And in natural disasters such as the recent earthquakes in Mexico and hurricanes in the Caribbean and the United States, rescuers could use the drones to locate victims and deploy aid.
The drones “will single out each person automatically and provide a trace for each individual as to where their heart rate and breathing rate is,” said Professor Javaan Chahl, the supervisor of the project. In multiple-victim situations, this feature could allow first responders to focus their efforts where they will do the most good.
The researchers don’t yet have a commercial partner, but Professor Chahl says “one good conversation with an industry partner who has an idea and we could be seeing this come to life in months.”
The Growing Field of Medical Drones
The Australian prototype is just one of a growing list of drones used to bring medical care to remote areas. For example, the California-based robotics company Zipline, Inc. has been delivering human blood for transfusions to areas of Rwanda for several years. The company will soon expand its operations to Tanzania, where it plans to broaden the scope of deliveries to include vaccines, HIV medications, and antimalaria drugs.
And while the drones are not yet available in the United States, testing is underway. In one study, Dr. Timothy Kien Amukele, M.D., Ph.D., an assistant professor of pathology at Johns Hopkins University, collected blood samples from 21 healthy volunteers. He then transported half of them on a drone equipped with a styrofoam cooler across the Arizona desert for three hours, while storing the other half in an air-conditioned car. The purpose was to learn if the blood samples would survive the desert heat and vibration associated with drone travel without breaking down.
With very few exceptions, they did.
Needless to say, drone manufacturers still face numerous safety hurdles before they can transport biological samples or human blood across the United States. Nonetheless, there’s little doubt that drones will have a place in the delivery of medical care to rural America soon. And as research continues, the field remains wide open for industry partners to step in.
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