Dutch engineering graduate develops a 3D printed ambulance drone that could save thousands of lives
We don't need to remind anyone that drones and 3D printing technology are an excellent combination. Just look at all the interesting 3D print-it-yourself quadcopter drones we've seen in recent months. However, did you know that drones can be used for more than quadcopter racing, spying or killing enemy militants? Did you know that drones also have the potential to save thousands of lives?
At least, that is what a 3D printed prototype drone, developed by Dutch graduate student Alec Momont from the Technical University of Delft, is capable of. Alec has designed and produced an unmanned, autonomously navigating mini-airplane that is capable of delivering a defibrillator at a moment's notice.
Obviously, a cardiac arrest can be fatal, but it doesn't have to be. When medical help is immediately available, survival rates increase enormously, which makes this 3D printed drone so tremendously promising. If immediately released, it has the potential of increasing survival rates from an original and dangerous 8% up to a very promising 80%!
This medical toolbox is thus definitely capable of saving lives. As Alec explained, 'some 800,000 people suffer a cardiac arrest in the EU every year, and only 8% survive. The main reason for this is the relatively long response time of the emergency services (approx. 10 minutes), while brain death and fatalities occur within 4 to 6 minutes. The ambulance drone can get a defibrillator to a patient inside a 12 km2 zone within one minute.'
Alec Momont, who studied at the Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering at the Technical University of Delft, developed this drone as a graduation project in collaboration with the institute Living Tomorrow. That innovative platform encourages and collaborates with projects that seek to improve mankind's quality of life everywhere.
As Alec explained, 'It is essential that the right medical care is provided within the first few minutes of a cardiac arrest. If we can get to an emergency scene faster we can save many lives and facilitate the recovery of many patients.' This applies to a number of emergencies such as heart failure, drowning, physical trauma and respiratory problems, and it makes drone technology a very viable medical tool. While Alec designed his to carry a defibrillator, it could also potentially transport numerous other forms of live-saving technologies.
And this is how Alec's promising drone works: When the emergency services receive a cardiac arrest call, this 3D printed drone can quickly deliver a defibrillator to the emergency scene. When it arrives, emergency services can continue to communicate with people on sight through a livestream video and audio connection. This way, people reporting the emergency can receive acute directions to deal with the patient even if professionals are not yet on site.
The drone itself is capable of finding the patient's location through the caller's mobile phone signal, and uses GPS to find its way over there. Impressively, it reach a top speed of 100 km/h and doesn't have to worry about traffic, making it the quickest ambulance around. It can also carry up to 4 kg, which means it can easily transport basic medical equipment.
Of course, it does depend on onlookers successfully working with a defibrillator they might have never seen before in their lives. But this is something that the open communication network is intended for. 'Currently, only 20% of untrained people are able to successfully apply a defibrillator,' says Alec. 'This rate can be increased to 90% if people are provided with instructions at the scene. Moreover, the presence of the emergency operator via the drone's loudspeaker helps to reduce the panic of the situation.'
As mentioned earlier, this life-saving drone has been (partly) created using 3D printing technology. As he explained in a YouTube clip (below), rapid manufacturing allowed them to quickly develop high-quality parts. 'Our iterative process, using design sketching, laser cutting and CNC modelling allowed us to rapidly visualize our ideas.'
So when will this thing go up and save lives? Well, it's still in a prototyping phase at the moment and Alec is exploring options to bring it into production. 'The costs should not be an issue; I have calculated these at approximately €15,000 per drone, which is clearly a reasonable amount if you consider the number of lives that could be saved.' Considering the costs of actual ambulances, the price should therefore not be a considerable obstacle towards actual implementation.
However, there are still some practical obstacles that the ambulance drone needs to overcome. Significantly, autonomous drones are still illegal in the Netherlands. New legislation on the subject is expected in 2015, so Alec will need to be patient for now. Moreover, the drone has not yet been tested on actual patients in actual emergencies, while some technological aspects still need to be improved upon.
Nonetheless, this 3D printed ambulance could be commonplace in a few years. Alec, thinking realistically, believes it can take the skies in the EU in about five years or so. He also doesn't have to worry about interest from the medical world, as a number of parties have already shown great interest. Alec therefore believes that 3D printed drones are about to gain a new, lifesaving medical application as well: 'Let's use drones for a good purpose. Let us use drones to save lives.' Let's hope he's right.
Check out this cool clip of the ambulance drone in action: