Researchers from the University of South Australia have successfully tested the use of drones to remotely measure heart and breathing rates in people ranging from ages 2 and 40 using advanced image-processing systems. Sensory systems professor Javaan Chahl, PhD, says the breakthrough drone system initially began as a reflex response to fatalities resulting from problems with electrode instruments or shortages of instrumentation in developing countries.

“The norm is to stick electrodes on children to measure heart rates,” says Chahl, the project’s supervisor. “Without any ill-intention, sometimes doctors in developing countries would reuse these electrodes due to a shortage of instruments”—a move, he says, that led to infection control problems.

Other possible applications include monitoring the vital signs of residents in nursing homes. “The drones don’t need to capture what you’re doing,” Chahl says. “The image processing system can simply produce the variables of heart and breathing rate without having to see patients at all or invade their privacy.”

“There may also be 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 adds.

The drone technology detects heart and breathing rates as accurately as standard heart monitors using a stabilized Go-Pro camera. Advanced image-processing systems then assess the video footage collected on the device and extract the heart and respiratory rates of the person without difficulty.

Chahl says that although the drone technologies were capable of monitoring several people in uncontrolled environments, the first goal was to pursue the initial aim of eliminating infection in neonatal subjects.

“The work with the neonatal subjects is something we are just going through the process of now,” he says. “It is quite involved and there’s quite a lot of ethics to consider with filming and measuring information from babies, but there are a lot of potential benefits for neonatal care worldwide. Our current challenge is to get the original plan of neonatal instrumentation working well.”