Innovative thinking

DO, student develop ambulance drones that could change disaster response

Italo Subbarao, DO, and Guy Paul Cooper Jr., OMS IV, explain how their ambulance drones work and their potential to help disaster victims.

Imagine that you live in rural Mississippi with your elderly mother. A tornado hits, and though you and your mother sheltered in your basement, your home is badly damaged, your vehicle has been flipped over and your mother is experiencing severe chest pains. You call 911 and learn that the road leading to your house is not passable due to the tornado’s destruction.

That’s the type of scenario that led a physician and medical student at the William Carey University College of Osteopathic Medicine (WCUCOM) in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, to begin developing telemedical drones in collaboration with aerial vehicle experts two years ago.

On Tuesday at John Bell Airport in Bolton, Mississippi, Italo Subbarao, DO, and Guy Paul Cooper Jr., OMS IV, demonstrated two recently developed “ambulance” drones containing telemedicine kits designed to assist in the aftermath of a mass shooting or terrorist attack. The project, and drones, are called HiRO, or Health Integrated Rescue Operations.

“The challenge in these type of chaotic events is that it is difficult for rescue personnel to reach the victims,” Dr. Subbarao, WCUCOM’s senior associate dean, said in a statement. “It is much more likely that a victim will be rescued by a layperson than a health care responder. That is where the ambulance drone can provide a great bridge to immediate lifesaving treatment by the time EMS authorities arrive.”

This video shows a simulated use of the ambulance drone. Please note that the first few seconds of the video contain TV color bars and tone.

How the drones work

In the aftermath of a natural disaster or other emergency, when traveling by land vehicle or helicopter is impractical or impossible, emergency services personnel could instruct pilots to fly a telemedical drone to a site near victims who need medical attention. Using Google Glass and a video screen included in the drone’s telemed kit, the bystander can connect with a remote physician who can then talk him or her through triage and emergency treatment of victims until more help arrives. The glasses allow the bystander to attend to victims while maintaining communication with the physician. The communications software was designed to be HIPAA-compliant to protect victims’ privacy.

“The two highly advanced mobile telemedical kits provide immediate and secure access to a provider on the other end of the screen,” said Cooper in a statement. “Through the telemedical interface, the provider can remotely guide the bystander in triaging and treating victim(s) at the scene.”

Dr. Subbarao and Dr. Cooper say the technology has the potential to dramatically improve the outcomes of disaster victims across the globe. Movers and shakers in the government are interested in the technology: Tuesday’s demonstration was attended by members of federal law enforcement and representatives from the United Nations, Homeland Security and the Mississippi governor’s office.

“As threats rise around the world, these advanced technologies can become essential to disaster response and help save lives,” Dr. Subbarao said.


  1. Harriet A. Fellows, DO, FACN

    Hope you took this idea to the military. To adventurers at the North and South Poles etc.. Nice work!

  2. Joshua Lenchus, DO, FACP, SFHM

    Brilliant idea! Should be absolutely mandatory in remote and/or difficult-to-reach places, but could also have applicability in military fields of battle. Other uses could be delivery of food and water to those in areas of flooding or natural disasters without access. I wonder about the range of the drone and its cargo weight limit. Outstanding!

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