Sluggish Response by US Regulatory Agencies Could Mean Missed Opportunity for Life Saving Drone Technology

November 17th, 2014

By CHHS Research Assistant Laura Merkey

Imagine if when faced with a life-threatening situation, ambulatory care is readily accessible and only a few minutes away, by air.  That is exactly the thought that occurred to Alec Momont, a 23 year-old student from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, after his parents lost a neighbor to cardiac arrest because an ambulance wasn’t able to arrive in time.

Momont, as part of his final project for the Delft University, has designed an ambulance drone that can fly at 60 miles per hour and has a built-in defibrillator.  In essence, Momont’s idea is that when an emergency call is received by the 911 center, a drone is sent out using GPS and the caller’s mobile phone signals to locate the emergency, or alternatively, could be flown by a human.

The drone, which is not inhibited by road conditions and traffic, could arrive faster than a traditional ambulance.  This is essential because of the importance of getting life-saving care to patients in the first few minutes of cardiac arrest.  There are other types of traumas that could benefit immensely from the speedy delivery a defibrillator, such as heart failure, drowning, and respiratory problems. Drones could also be used in emergency responses to transport medical supplies, such as insulin, EpiPens, or oxygen masks to a person trapped in a fire; putting a heat sensor on the drones could help locate skiers lost in an avalanche.

The estimated price tag for each drone is $19,000, not including extra technology such as Sonar or heat sensors.  The project is still in the early stages and has not yet been tested on actual humans; it could prove too costly to ever be implemented but is an indicator of the direction that emergency response technology is trending towards – unmanned aerial vehicles.

The potential that these types of advancements present may be largely missed out upon by the United States (US), however, as a result of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) inability to provide guidelines for legal commercial drone use in a timely manner.

In 2012, Congress passed a law that legalized commercial and civilian drone flights in the US. Yet the FAA is expected to miss the September 2015 deadline set by Congress to allow drones to fly in the nation’s skies because of technical and regulatory obstacles.  The FAA needs to advance standards to ensure drones are airworthy, pilots are properly trained, and that the drones won’t interfere with other air traffic.  There are also concerns about potential privacy implications that need to be addressed.

It is unclear when drones will be able to be safely incorporated into the US’ airspace – as of now, entrepreneurs are struggling with federal regulatory bodies just for permission to experiment with new applications of the technology.  The FAA estimates that in a decade, commercial drones will be a $90 billion industry – an industry that European countries are already taking advantage of.  The lag caused by regulatory hiccups could cause the US to lose its edge in developing new markets for drones and advancing emergency response capabilities.

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