drone flying

Heartbeat-detecting drones developed to seek out stranded humans

Drone that can detect heartbeats, breathing rates and facial movements at a distance have been trialled for use in warzones and areas hit by natural disasters.

The drones use advanced image-processing systems to remotely measure heart and breathing rates.

An algorithm created by students at the University of South Australia enables the drones to detect the vital signs present in several people at once, even if they are moving.

Other possible applications include monitoring the vital signs of residents in nursing homes or in areas prone to human infection, such as neonatal wards.


This drone was equipped with a GoPro and special software

Project supervisor Sensory Systems Professor Javaan Chahl said the breakthrough drone system detected movements in human faces and necks in order to accurately source heart and breathing rates.

He said while the drones took measurements from a distance of three metres in recent trials, the technology could be advanced to take the readings from much further away.

“The drone actually has a stabilised commercial GoPro attached to it. Using image processing on the video footage, Ali [Al-Naji, PhD student researcher] was able to extract the heart rate and breathing rate of the person without any difficulty,” he said.

“The drone will single each person out automatically and provide a trace for each individual as to where their heart rate and breathing rate is.

“We’ve also used telephoto optics to look out over 50 metres and we will expand this to 500 metres in the near future using a telescope.”

Chahl said using drones was necessary in environments that were unsafe or inaccessible to humans such as war zones and areas devastated by natural disaster.

“There are scenarios when maybe a drone is the only thing that can get there,” he said.

“A lot of environments are hostile so a drone is the safest option – places like the ocean require drones in order to gain access to people in trouble quickly and safely.

“There’s also situations in clinical settings where you wouldn’t really think it’s worth having electrodes and instruments to monitor patients, but if you can just have a camera do it, you may be able to put instrumentation where you wouldn’t normally put it.”

Chahl said the research began as a response to increased infection rates in countries where electrodes were being used to detect vital signs in neonatal babies.

The research has been conducted over three years using 15 healthy humans aged between two and 40.

“Digital technology like this – one good conversation with an industry partner who has an idea and we could be seeing this come to life in months. The barriers are very low,” Chahl said.

Drones are increasingly being used in remote areas and disaster scenarios to alleviate many of the issues created by being isolated or cut off from the rest of the world. The world’s largest drone-delivery network was recently launched in Tanzania to deliver blood and medicines to women undergoing childbirth and children infected by malaria in remote areas. 

Insurance companies also flew fleets of drones over areas affected by Storm Harvey in an attempt to assess how many billions of dollars in damage they would be forced to pay out once the rain cleared. 

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