Researchers from the University of South Australia have demonstrated the use of drones for the detection of human vital signs in war zones and natural disasters.

Under a collaborative agreement with the Defence Science and Technology (DST) Group, the researchers have measured heart and respiratory rates through remote-sensing imaging systems while the drones hovered three metres above the individual.

According to the team, video footage from these vehicles could allow identification of changes in human skin tone and minute head movements for reading accurate vital signs without physical restrictions.

The drones can remotely monitor the heart rates of premature babies in incubators and are expected to aid triage of victims in earthquakes. They will also detect security and terrorism threats at airports by measuring irregularities in physiological factors such as heart rates.

Led by the university’s professor Javaan Chahl, the researchers performed multiple indoor and outdoor studies within close range of the drones in 15 healthy individuals aged 2-40 years.

“Data obtained was observed to be as accurate as existing standard contact methods such as ECGs, pulse oximeters and respiratory belts used to monitor vital signs.”

Data obtained was observed to be as accurate as existing standard contact methods such as ECGs, pulse oximeters and respiratory belts used to monitor vital signs.

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While the experiments were carried out within three metres, the researchers expect that the drones could capture information at greater distances upon further advancement of the technology.

It is further expected that expensive disposable electrodes could be replaced with this technology, as this eliminates the temptation to reuse the electrodes that could spread skin infections between neonatal infants.

Professor Chahl said: “Obviously there are privacy and ethical issues around this technology that need to be resolved before it becomes common practice, but there is enormous potential to use machine vision systems to benefit society, particularly in the biomedical sphere.

“I expect we will be using this software in everyday life in the next decade.”