The first fully-equipped medical multirotor drone with telemedicine capability is the newest innovation from Dr. Italo Subbarao, an associate dean and associate professor at the William Carey University College of Osteopathic Medicine, and Guy Paul Cooper Jr., a third-year Carey medical student from Wheaton, Illinois.
Subbarao and Cooper have been working on the project, called Healthcare Integrated Rescue Operations (HiRO), since 2014. HiRO is a follow-up to the team’s previous project, an analysis of the use of Twitter during the February 2013 Hattiesburg tornado and an application of the social network’s usefulness to other crisis situations. Their findings from the Twitter project were published in June in PLOS Currents: Disasters, a peer-reviewed scientific journal, and then shared internationally.
According to Subbarao, the HiRO prototype, a modified DJI S1000+ drone, is capable of carrying an advanced, 20-pound telemedical kit and delivering it to someone in need of medical attention in areas where emergency personnel may not be able to reach quickly. Subbarao also notes that the drone can be used to reach areas that health rescue personnel may not want to enter immediately, such as a suspected Ebola outbreak in a third-world country.
“The purpose of the project is to get timely life-saving medications, vaccines and equipment to victims in a disaster area or in a remote location through the use of GPS,” said Subbarao.
A hypothetical situation Subbarao envisions involves a hiker on a rural path with limited access to emergency medicine. When the hiker is injured or faces another situation, such as a heart attack, he dials 911. The HiRO drone is dispatched and is able to deliver the medical kit, which is customized to the hiker’s emergency. When the hiker opens the medical kit, he is greeted by a live video broadcast directing him on how to use the medicine or equipment.
“Embedded inside of the kit is a smartphone, which enables a live video chat between the injured party and the physician,” said Subbarao.
Subbarao hopes to eventually deploy a fleet of the HiRO drones throughout the state and nation and particularly to rural, underserved areas. He added that the project could also be used for a number of different purposes, such as military medicine or in the event of a hazardous material situation.
“The drone can be enabled with advanced features, including a sensor that can detect hazardous chemicals,” he said. “It could fly over an area and then sound an alarm that could tell firemen or emergency medical personnel not to enter.”
The HiRO project could also be used to help teach emergency medicine, said Subbarao.
“For example, medical students at Carey could work on the technical side of the drone and also learn emergency response techniques,” he said.
The team is currently conducting demonstrations of the prototype and building additional modular kits. A cardiac kit has already been assembled and is in the testing stages. Subbarao and Cooper are planning Ebola and trauma kits in the near future.
Cooper, who is currently completing clinical rotations in Gulfport, believes the project’s value can be found in its ability to avoid obstacles traditionally faced in health care delivery.
“HiRO can overcome obstacles such as traffic and hazardous materials, but it also has the ability to give emergency responders a quick survey of a crisis scene and a way to provide treatment,” he said.
The team sees a bright future for the HiRO project.
“Although the project is still in the quality control testing stages, we believe it can transform health care delivery around the world,” said Subbarao.