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A student’s ambitious plan to canvas the Netherlands with ‘ambulance drones’

Here’s a demonstration of how Alec Momont imagines his ambulance drone could work. (Bas Czerwinski/AFP/Getty Images)
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Before graduating from the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, Alec Momont needed to complete a final project. Motivated by negative headlines about drones, he set out to find a positive use for the unmanned aerial vehicles.

Momont’s parents had recently lost a neighbor to cardiac arrest after an ambulance wasn’t able to arrive in time. The 23-year-old wondered, what if drones could be used to carry emergency supplies? So Momont reached out to Living Tomorrow — an organization known for undertaking innovation projects — and began collaborating on an “ambulance drone.”

While Momont’s project is still in the early stages — it has yet to be tested on actual humans and could prove too costly to ever be implemented — it’s a reminder of the positive potential of unmanned aerial vehicles. The United States is largely missing out on this potential as the FAA has been slow to provide guidelines for legal commercial drone use.

Momont developed a drone with a defibrillator built in. The drone is capable of traveling at 62 mph, but the battery lasts for only 10 minutes. He says a network of 3,000 drones could canvas the Netherlands, each drone responding to 12 square kilometers within a minute. He envisions the drones being stationed on telephone poles. The nearest drone could be summoned following a 911 call, and flown — either autonomously or controlled by a human — to the site.

Once the drone lands, a panel is opened up and the defibrillator paddles are removed. The drone includes a camera, so that an emergency technician watching from afar can offer personalized advice.

His drone weighs 8.8 pounds and includes a separate battery for the defibrillator, which is capable of delivering up to 50 shocks.

An ambulance in the Netherlands typically takes almost 10 minutes to arrive, so Momont’s theoretical army of drones would provide a significant improvement and likely save lives. He hopes to eventually double the drone’s top speed to make response times even faster.

Momont thinks using drones to deliver defibrillators could be just scratching the surface of the potential to improve emergency responses. Another use he envisions is putting a heat sensor on a drone to locate skiers buried in avalanches.

The Belgian graduated from his Master’s degree program Tuesday, and now is focused on finding more funding to make his dream a reality. He estimated a $19,000 price tag for each drone, and noted that additional technology such as a Sonar system, still needs factored in.