In a hurricane, mass shooting, or other disaster, emergency personnel cannot always get to the scene as fast as needed.
Could a drone take their place?
That is the premise behind a prototype presented Monday at OMED 17, an osteopathic medicine conference in Philadelphia.
Such a device could be loaded with a medical kit containing a defibrillator, a tourniquet, and a wireless headset so civilians at a disaster site could receive instructions from medical personnel, said Italo Subbarao, a co-developer of the project.
Emergency medicine providers have urged faster treatment of bleeding in mass-casualty incidents, enlisting the help of police and civilians if necessary, as every minute of blood loss worsens the patient's chances.
A drone could help with that goal, said Subbarao, the senior associate dean at William Carey University College of Osteopathic Medicine in Hattiesburg, Miss. He is a graduate of Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, so the conference this week put him in familiar surroundings.
Subbarao said he hoped the drone could be production-ready in early 2018.
"I would like nothing more than to be able to fly this drone down Broad Street," he said. "We're just not there yet."
After seeing the devastation from a February 2013 tornado in Hattiesburg, he and colleague Guy Paul Cooper developed the drone in partnership with Dennis Lott, head of the unmanned aerial vehicle program at Hinds Community College in Mississippi.
"It was like a bowling ball came down the main drag," Subbarao said of the tornado. "It was very difficult for us to get our first responders to those victims' homes."
Researchers in Sweden also have tested drones that could deliver defibrillators.
The drone prototypes that Subbarao and his colleagues are working on could carry a variety of equipment, as well as medicines such as epinephrine, naloxone, and albuterol. They said it was too soon to estimate a cost, but said the devices would weigh from 30 to 60 pounds.