Over the last 20+ years, the air ambulance industry has experienced some turbulence. In 1990, there was only one air ambulance accident in the U.S. with a fatality. Throughout the 90s, the number of air ambulance crashes, mostly involving helicopters, began to climb. The number of accidents peaked in 2004, when there were 19 accidents and 29 fatalities. Accidents have leveled off since then, but it’s still very much an issue the industry struggles with.
Fast-forward to the present, the air ambulance industry has seen rapid growth. In 2003, according to the Association of Air Medical Services (AAMS), there were 545 helicopter air ambulances in the U.S.1 Today there’s almost twice that number. TechNavio estimates that the industry will experience a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 9.57% over the period of 2014 to 2019, with an increasing number of vendors and a growing number of people in need.2
As we move into 2016, one of the biggest challenges facing the air ambulance industry is adequate safety, and one of the most promising prospects is the development of patient transport drones combined with remote-controlled telemedicine.
The military has experienced several incidents in which soldiers were in need of medevac services, but were unable to receive these critical services due to their location in hot zones deemed too high-risk for standard helicopter medevac response. In an attempt to find a solution, the U.S. Army sponsored a Small Business Innovative Research grant asking for concepts of an autonomous vertical, takeoff and landing, unmanned aircraft system for medical missions such as critical item resupply and casualty evacuation.
With the increase in air medical helicopters and airplanes deployed, there’s a greater probability of accidents, simply because it’s hazardous work. When rescuing patients from remote areas in bad weather, unfamiliar landing zones or from military hot zones, both the civilian and military markets can benefit from the type of innovation sought by the research grant.
In 2007, United Medevac Solutions was fortunate to participate on this futuristic project with a collaborative team organized by the Aerospace Engineering Department at Georgia Tech University.
The concept was for the unmanned flying ambulance to arrive remotely piloted and once the ground medic loads the patient onto a specially designed stretcher platform, vital signs are monitored, IV fluids and medications can be administered and other life-saving procedures can be performed via remote control telemedicine.
In the years since, multiple companies have continued the development of these drone platforms, and in 2015 an Israeli company, Urban Aeronautics, actually built a working prototype of an unmanned aerial medevac aircraft for military use.3
Once this is proven as a military product, the same concept will have immediate applications in the civilian air medical industry. Sending drones instead of piloted ambulances into hostile weather and obscure environments will save air medical crew members’ lives. Often, air medical crews feel compelled to respond to emergencies when they shouldn’t because of the human factor—a desire to help even when conditions aren’t safe. Unmanned flying ambulances could rescue patients injured by natural disasters, lost in dangerous territory or unexpectedly suffering from a medical emergency. These drones could also deliver food and supplies to isolated populations or inaccessible areas.
The air ambulance industry has always been dangerous. Sweeping technological progress is helping to change that, and we are seeing much progress in 2016. As we move further into the 21st century, a combination of drones and telemedicine will provide timely service, reduce flight crew risk/expenses and save lives.
- Head E. (Oct. 27, 2015) Is sky-high the limit? Vertical Magazine. Retrieved April 19, 2016, from http://www.verticalmag.com/news/article/IsSkyHightheLimit.
- Market Research Store. (Jan. 2015) Global air ambulance market 2015-2019. Retrieved April 19, 2016, from http://www.marketresearchstore.com/report/global-air-ambulance-market-2015-2019-4344.
- Krisch J. (Jan. 30, 2014) Ambulance drones are almost here. Popular Mechanics. Retrieved April 19, 2016, from http://www.popularmechanics.com/flight/drones/a9975/ambulance-drones-are-almost-here-16439614/.