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Drone program for medical supplies to make national debut in Lakewood Ranch

The Archer First Response Systems drone can deliver a defibrillator and a dose of Narcan to 911 callers in Manatee County.
The Archer First Response Systems drone can deliver a defibrillator and a dose of Narcan to 911 callers in Manatee County.
Image courtesy of Tampa General Hospital
  • Manatee-Sarasota
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Soon, 911 callers in Manatee County may get a drone responding to their call for help — in addition to an ambulance.

The futuristic-sounding response is part of a test program that's taken multiple organizations multiple years to put together. The goal: use cutting-edge drone and data technology to help people suffering from a heart attack or a drug overdose get the help they need much more quickly. 

“This first-in-the-nation-program can effectively save lives by responding to health-related emergencies faster than ever before," John Couris, CEO of Tampa General Hospital, which is sponsoring the drone program, says in a statement.

Drones have been installed at Manatee County’s Lakewood Ranch EMS station on Malachite Drive, between White Eagle Boulevard and Lakewood Ranch Boulevard, and will cover 3.5 square miles to start. If someone in that area calls 911 about a cardiac arrest or opioid overdose, the dispatcher will be able to send a drone with an automatic external defibrillator and Narcan while the caller waits for an ambulance to arrive.

Annually, more than 350,000 people suffer from out-of-hospital cardiac arrest, and 60%-80% of them die before reaching the hospital, according to the Centers for Disease Control. More than 112,000 people died last year from opioid-related overdoses. 

"These situations are extremely time-sensitive," Gordon Folkes, CEO of Archer First Response Systems, told Manatee County commissioners Tuesday during a presentation on the pilot program. Archer, based in Orlando, is providing the drones for the initiative. "Every second matters in these emergencies.” 

Once summoned by Manatee County dispatchers, the drones will reach 911 callers in less than 2 minutes and 10 seconds. Programmed to avoid obstacles like trees and roofs, the devices fly 200 feet above ground to a destination, where they will not land; instead, they will hover, and their contents will be sent down using a tether. It takes about 15 seconds to lower the goods so the 911 caller can retrieve them, according to Folkes. Each drone will contain an AED and dose of Narcan (nasal spray that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose).

Dispatchers in Manatee County have been trained to teach callers how to use AEDs and Narcan. In addition, 911 callers will be able to watch a video on the AED itself showing what to do. The video can play in English or Spanish, and there are buttons to tailor the device for use on an adult or child, Folkes says.

The drone program is the result of a yearslong effort among Tampa General Hospital in partnership with the University of South Florida, the Manatee County Public Safety Department and Archer First Response Systems. While conversations started four to five years ago between Tampa General and Archer, Federal Aviation Administration regulations were “an issue, and it took a few years to work through that,” Vice President of Tampa General Hospital Steve Harris told the Manatee County commissioners. “We landed on Manatee County specifically as the ideal location and got FAA approval” to operate the drones as public aircraft.

Lakewood Ranch was selected for several reasons, according to Folkes: There is class G airspace; population density was “large enough to make an impact,” with 1,000 people per square mile; and the region provided ample space for test flights over soccer fields off Malachite Drive.

The map shows the area in Lakewood Ranch where drones will be deployed as part of a pilot program. Red dots show where there have been cardiac arrests; blue dots show opioid overdose locations.
Courtesy image

It will cost Manatee County $1 a month to operate the drones for the pilot program, according to Folkes, with a new contract required at the end of one year.

At first, the drone program will run from sunup to sundown Mondays to Fridays. Before the end of the year, it could expand to 35 square miles and run 24 hours a day, seven days a week, plus include tourniquets for responding to hemorrhaging.

Monthly, Archer will provide data to Manatee County about the drones, including where they were used and whether a sustained heart rhythm was achieved after a cardiac arrest.

”With the ability to measure the impact of this program on the community, we can determine how the technology can be used in more scalable, reproducible ways for the broader benefit of our state,” Tampa General's Couris says.

Public notices will be mailed out to residents in the impacted Lakewood Ranch area this week informing them about the pilot program, which starts May 1.

“This is an amazing opportunity to be on the cutting edge of technology in emergency response,” Manatee County Commission Chair Mike Rahn says in an April 23 statement. “We are excited that this first-of-its-kind program is taking flight first here in Manatee County.”



Elizabeth King

Elizabeth is a business news reporter with the Business Observer, covering primarily Sarasota-Bradenton, in addition to other parts of the region. A graduate of Johns Hopkins University, she previously covered hyperlocal news in Maryland for Patch for 12 years. Now she lives in Sarasota County.

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