A scientist’s opinion: interview with Johannes Werner on drones for medical services

Interview with Johannes Werner, management and technology student at the Technical University of Munich in Germany, and business lead on the HORYZN initiative.

How important are drones for medical services such as transporting defibrillators?

Johannes WernerJohannes Werner: We saw the chance to improve survival from out-of-hospital cardiac arrest by bringing defibrillators faster to the scene using drones rather than ambulances, in four to five minutes. Doing this, we think our type of system can triple the chance of survival in Germany.

What’s helpful is that the medical sector is supporting this topic, while studies in recent years have shown it’s beneficial to deliver defibrillators and other medical supplies with drones.

Once the regulations allow such drones, it’s exciting because you can use them for a lot of stuff. Other people we speak to also say that from the technical side, there are so many things possible, and it’s just politics and regulations that need to catch up; then drones could be used for a lot more interesting concepts.

What have you done so far in terms of developing prototype drones?

Johannes Werner: We finished our first prototype in December 2021 and had a rollout event where we showed it to the public, flying the drone and showing how the medical system works in theory. We now want to do a transition from hovering to forward flight, as that seems to be a bit more complicated than expected.

We’re also in the middle of the design phase of our second prototype, which is like the first but with some improved systems and errors fixed. In addition, we’re trying to get an authorisation from the German aviation authorities to fly it in real air spaces and not only on test fields.

Does someone need to control it from the ground when it’s trying to reach a particular destination, or is there a system that allows it to navigate itself?

Johannes Werner: It’s meant to fly BVLOS [beyond visual line of sight] to enable it to go up to 6 kilometres without a pilot – so it should be autonomous and automatic. We don’t fly autonomously yet, but we already successfully did some autonomous flights and full implementation is due in the second half of 2023 with our second prototype.

The idea is that if a call goes to the emergency service’s control centre – the same centre where they deploy ambulances – the coordinates are given to a drone, which starts automatically and flies to the scene, lowers the defibrillator with a rope mechanism and flies back again.

Before an ambulance arrives, bystanders or someone with a medical background – potentially alerted by a smartphone-based system – can then administer the aid.

How long will it take to develop a fully functioning drone system based on your type of technology?

Johannes Werner: Our mission is to make this happen during 2023 from the technical side. From the operational side, to get it authorised and really make it happen, people often say this type of system will take five more years or so, but I think it might be just two or three years.

It also depends on how fast German aviation centres can make this happen, because some guidelines from the European Union Aviation Safety Agency [EASA] are already written, but not yet implemented for such a use over populated areas.

How difficult is getting an authorisation and resolving drone-related safety challenges?

Johannes Werner: There are some guidelines from EASA in this area that are quite recent, which is one reason why there are many operators not operating yet.

There are a lot of small steps we have to carry out to get authorisation for specific levels, which is what makes it complicated. In our first step, the goal is to fly BVLOS over sparsely populated areas. This is not the final destination we want to reach, but the German aviation authorities recommended we go step by step.

How well has the HORYZN project gone so far?

Johannes Werner: We have really grown in recent months, not only in terms of our work but also personally. I started in January 2021 and we were 50 students; now, we are 70.

People from outside always think we’re a company rather than students because it looks professional, so it’s good that it’s working well with so many people.

We also achieved a milestone on 15 December 2021, because at the end of August that year we had the option to do our rollout of the first prototype by this date and we weren’t sure if we could make it happen in less than four months – but we did, and this was a great achievement.

Moreover, in 2022 we restructured HORYZN to make it sustainable for the future and help give it solid financials to generate reserves for more initiatives.

What do you think the advantages are of doing this as a student group rather than a company?

Johannes Werner: We have no commercial pressure. We need money for building it, of course, but we don’t have to finance our lives with it. We are also flexible and spontaneous, and can make things happen rapidly without bigger issues.

Many of the students are studying subjects such as aerospace and engineering, with other students coming more from the business side and thinking about use cases. I’m personally studying management and technology.

But in general, the idea of the initiative is to make innovative flying concepts – and now we can combine it with a really good use case of medical services, which is what makes it really cool for everyone.

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