U of T Researchers Explore UAV-Delivered Automatic External Defibrillators

Researchers from the University of Toronto Engineering are exploring the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to deliver lifesaving automatic external defibrillators (AEDs) to homes.

PhD candidate Justin Boutilier is working under Professor Timothy Chan, director of the Centre for Healthcare Engineering at U of T, in collaboration with Professor Angela Schoellig and researchers from the St. Michael’s Hospital Rescu program.

This project comes on the heels of research by Chan’s lab on cardiac arrests that occur outside of hospitals and the lack of accessible AEDs in public locations during non-business hours. Boutilier is now focusing on reducing deaths from cardiac arrests that occur at home. According to a press release from the U of T, roughly 85% of out-of-hospital cardiac arrests in southern Ontario take place within a private residence.

“For those arrests, the public AEDs are not useful because it’s hard to get to them in time. It’s also not cost-effective to put AEDs everywhere in the suburbs,” says Boutilier.

“Not only is the survival rate of private-location cardiac arrests low – the response times are also slower than public locations,” adds Chan. “So, we thought, we need to come up with something completely new.”

Chan and Dr. Steve Brooks, an emergency physician at Kingston General Hospital and frequent collaborator at Rescu, found a video of a prototype AED drone designed at Delft University in the Netherlands. A PhD student had developed the prototype – complete with a camera and microphone – which weighed only 4 kg and traveled 100 kilometers per hour.

“We conducted our analysis by imagining that this technology was implemented five years ago and asking, ‘What would the next five years have looked like?’” Boutilier explains

What they found was that they were able to shave several minutes off the median ambulance response times in both rural and urban regions; in addition, UAVs could arrive ahead of ambulances more than 90% of the time.

“The one challenging thing is that it’s hard to know the number of lives we could have saved, which is what we’re looking at now,” says Boutilier.

According to the U of T, regulatory restrictions under Transport Canada present another challenge to implementation. Current rules stipulate that users are prohibited from flying drones out of their line of sight.

Schoellig, the associate director of the Centre for Aerial Robotics Research and Education (CARRE) at the U of T, believes these restrictive regulations won’t last for long.

“It is a matter of proving safety and reliability of this new technology to the regulators. This will require more technological breakthroughs – for example, giving drones the ability to detect obstacles. But drone technology has developed very quickly in the last five to 10 years,” she says.

This past weekend, Boutilier and Chan presented their research at the American Heart Association Resuscitation Science Symposium in New Orleans.

In the near future, Boutilier hopes to pilot the project in Muskoka, a region that has a high rate of bystander cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and the slowest ambulance response time of all the regions they’ve gathered data from, according to the U of T.

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