Photo: Timothy Chan (left), Angela Schoellig (middle) and Justin Boutilier (right) pose with a model drone. They are researchers at the University of Toronto. Credit: LIZ DO/University of Toronto Engineering. Video (below): Sean Hackett enjoys the snow with his sons Declan and Archer. Credit: Sean Hackett.

Archer Hackett is a lively two-year-old boy, living a comfortable life with his parents and brother in Renfrew County. To see him sliding around with his brother on this November day, you couldn’t tell that even before he reached his first birthday, Archer had a heart attack.

“If we hadn’t had a defibrillator when he went into cardiac arrest, he likely would not have survived,” said his father, Sean Hackett.

Archer has long QT syndrome: a heart condition that can cause rapid heartbeats, leading to fainting spells, seizures and—in some cases—cardiac arrest. For Archer, having easy access to an automated external defibrillator (AED) can mean the difference between life and death.

Access to public defibrillators is steadily growing in Ottawa, as city paramedics make sure places like recreation centres and government buildings are equipped with them.

“Currently, there are 1,028 AEDs spread out throughout the city,” said J.P. Trottier, the public information officer for the Ottawa Paramedic Service.

But at the University of Toronto, engineering professor and director of the Centre for Healthcare Engineering, Timothy Chan, has a more advanced idea in mind. Working alongside other researchers, Chan and his team are thinking about ways to equip drones with AEDs and place them strategically throughout various communities, including the Greater Toronto Area. The idea is to help individuals who are experiencing cardiac arrest more quickly, using the drones to beat ambulance response times and deliver defibrillators directly to individuals.

“Why couldn’t we have a drone fly up to a balcony and drop off an AED to the 30th floor?” asked Chan when discussing his project.

Photo: Liz Do, University of Toronto Engineering.

Chan was already researching optimal places to put public AEDs when he came across an article from Germany about defibrillator-equipped drones. He was inspired to apply his research to these drones.

Chan found that the “vast majority of cardiac arrests occurs in private locations like residences.” While defibrillators may be found in public buildings, they might not be available after-hours or to people who are in their homes.

“We have to keep in mind that public locations are locations where survival is the highest, but is also the minority of cases,” he said.

Although Chan’s model has focused on southern Ontario, he says data about cardiac arrests in Ottawa—like where they occur most often—could be used to map ideal drone base locations here as well.

“Our optimization model for figuring out drone bases is a very general model, so if you have data from Ottawa, Vancouver, or wherever, we can plug it into our model and give you similar recommendations,” said Chan.

Chan hopes that his research will become a reality within the next five to 10 years. Until then, there is much work to be done, he said.

Looking at the present

Although Chan’s work is still only theoretical, Renfrew County paramedics are looking to test his ideas soon. But they’ll have to deal with several Transport Canada regulations beforehand.

According to the Transport Canada website, drones must be flown within the operator’s line of sight, which is the first rule these defibrillator-equipped drones would break. But Chan hopes this and other rules can be met.

Photo: Shalu Mehta

As for Ottawa paramedics, Trottier said that while Renfrew County differs from Ottawa in terms of population and buildings, Ottawa does have rural areas that could benefit from the use of drone-equipped defibrillators.

The Ottawa Paramedic Service is waiting to see how the tests go in Renfrew County before they consider bringing these drones into the city.

“We will not consider the purchase of drones until the outcome of the study,” said Trottier. But Ottawa paramedics are still interested in making AEDs more accessible to the public.

Trottier said the city could use more publicly accessible defibrillators, adding that the Ontario Association of Paramedic Chiefs wants to ensure AEDs are a required component of building codes.

Sean Hackett, Archer Hackett’s father, feels strongly about easily accessible AEDs as well.

“For him, it’s life or death,” said Hackett about his son. “If we hadn’t had a defibrillator when he went into cardiac arrest, he likely would not have survived.”

Photo: Shalu Mehta

Hackett and his wife, Roxanne Kamula, are both paramedics. So when Archer went into cardiac arrest, they were able to perform what Hackett calls “good CPR” until they could use a defibrillator on him. Hackett said the quick use of an AED is why his son was not seriously harmed after the cardiac arrest.

Top: Sean Hackett and his son, Archer. Credit: Shalu Mehta. Bottom Left: Archer after his cardiac arrest. Bottom Right: Sean Hackett and his sons Declan (left) and Archer (right). Credit for bottom two photos to Sean Hackett.

While Hackett praises technology for saving his son’s life, he is not getting his hopes up just yet about the drones. For him, much more research is needed before he can see the drones being used regularly.

“The advantage of the drone right now is that (…) it brings people’s attention to it,” said Hackett, referring to cardiac arrest. “If the technology becomes less expensive and access becomes more popular, then I see the access to an AED to have potential.” With AEDs each costing upwards of $1,200, the high cost remains a significant obstacle.

Until then, Hackett can only advocate for better access to AEDs and CPR training courses—for the sake of his son and other individuals at risk of cardiac arrest.

Photo: Shalu Mehta
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Shalu Mehta

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