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Helsinki helps lay the groundwork for cities to take on healthcare drones

Finnish capital is part of a pan-EU project to introduce drone technology into emergency medical services

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Helsinki is taking part in a European Union (EU)-funded project to help cities and other stakeholders prepare to use drones for medical emergencies. 

The AiRMOUR project is funded by the EU to help enable the use of air mobility for emergency medical services in European cities. The project began in January 2021 and will run until December 2023, receiving about €6m over three years from the EU’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme. 

The aim of the project is to find out what actions need to be taken in the near future by different stakeholders to enable drone technology on a large scale. Stakeholders include urban communities, operators, regulators, academia and businesses.  

The project is led by the Technical Research Centre of Finland (VTT) and involves 12 other partners, including Forum Virium Helsinki. The project focuses exclusively on emergency medical services and includes electrical vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) machines to fly healthcare professionals to emergency sites, as well as smaller drones to deliver medical equipment. 

The project aims to run real-life demonstrations in three locations: Stavanger, Norway; Helsinki, Finland; and Nord-Hessen, Germany. Simulations will be run in Luxembourg. The intended outcome of the project is a set of training and decision-support tools to help the various stakeholders prepare for the imminent take-off of drone technology. 

Autonomous systems nothing new to Helsinki 

One of the key organisations working on the project in Helsinki already has years of experience with autonomous systems. Forum Virium Helsinki is a non-profit organisation, owned by the city, whose mission is to enable companies to test their innovations in real-life conditions. Companies get to run pilot projects and simulations – and the city benefits by learning more about the new technology and working out what new infrastructure and policies will be required. 

“We have been running ground-based autonomous vehicle projects for many years,” said Renske Martijnse-Hartikka, senior project manager for smart and autonomous mobility at Forum Virium Helsinki. “Now we are looking at drones, which will be a booming industry that will require cities to make some adjustments. They will need infrastructure, including landing sites, and they will need urban planning and policies.

“About two years ago, we started incorporating aerial drone projects in our portfolio, and many of these are either EU-funded or funded by the Finnish state. We always cooperate with companies when we take on a project because businesses are always a driving force.”

Read more about practical uses for drone technology

Martijnse-Hartikka added: “One of our projects involved the city’s maintenance company, which now has six or seven drones that it uses for maintenance and surveillance of construction sites, inspection of buildings, and so on. The city’s rescue services also uses aerial drones to fight fires. The drones are equipped with thermal sensors to help them figure out how the fire will spread.

“More recently, we have been testing aerial drones for analysing traffic flow and mapping certain intersections and neighbourhoods in 3D. We have also begun to use drones to test 5G remote operations.

“Drone delivery of consumer packages is not of primary interest to the city. Delivering small packages may not justify the cost and the disturbances caused by flying drones. However, delivery of medical products does. In fact, we already have experience using drones for healthcare. One example is a pilot project that we ran for delivery of pharmaceutical products from one district to another.”

Emergency medical is first use case for large-scale drone projects 

AiRMOUR focuses on both large passenger drones and small medical delivery drones. The eVTOLs are like air taxis, carrying one or two passengers. These systems are expected to add to the existing medical helicopter services, especially to the islands in the Nordic countries. They are seen as a cost-effective way of getting a medical specialist to a remote location quickly. 

The team has identified a few use cases for the smaller drones. One is A-to-B, where, for example, a blood sample or a tissue sample is transported from a hospital to a lab. This is currently done by car, but cars can get stuck in traffic. Drones are potentially more efficient, not only from a cost point of view, but also being eco-friendly. 

Another case is A-to-N-missions, which are deliveries from a known position to an unknown location. Someone has a heart attack at a random location and a drone delivers an automatic emergency defibrillator. 

“Our research will shed light on different aspects of these emergency medical drone flights,” said Martijnse-Hartikka. “Managing routes is a big area of concern. The more drones you have in the air, the more likely you will have conflicts. You need some air traffic management, and you need landing sites – including sites for emergency landings. Urban air mobility requires the use of lower airspace, which is very new for cities, which are used to planning ground-based traffic. Now they have to plan for the use of the lower airspace.

“Another area of concern is public acceptance. How do citizens perceive drones, especially their safety? Noise and visual pollution have to be considered. Cities might want to impose limits, so that drones can fly only in certain locations or at certain times of day. We are also exploring cyber security and privacy.”

As well as helping urban planners, the project aims to help the business community. One activity will be to explore different business models, such as the possibilities for a hospital to develop its own in-house system or subscribe to an external service. 

The project has already been running for a year and has two years to go. “The first real-life pilots or demos are likely to be run in Stavanger during the second half of this year,” said Martijnse-Hartikka. “We are also trying to push this forward in Helsinki, hopefully towards the end of this year or the beginning of 2023.”

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