Swedish researchers have pitted a drone carrying a defibrillator against ambulance arrival times to show that unmanned aircraft could reach heart attack victims much faster, possibly saving lives.

A specially constructed eight-rotor drone was equipped with a GPS system, a camera and an automated external defibrillator and test-flown to destinations ambulances had been dispatched to on 18 incidents of cardiac arrest between 2006 and 2013.

The drone had a response time from alarm to being airborne of three seconds and an average time from alarm to arrival of about five minutes, 16 minutes less than the ambulance response times, researchers from the Centre for Resuscitation Science at Karolinska Institutet and Stockholm South General Hospital wrote in JAMA.

With about 30,000 people suffering a sudden cardiac arrest in Australia each year and an average survival rate of 9-10 per cent, the time it takes to defibrillate a heart attack victim is the most important factor for survival.

“This study clearly shows that unmanned aircraft, drones, show great potential in being able to deliver a defibrillator long before an ambulance arrives, particularly in remote areas,” paramedic and lead researcher Andreas Claesson said.

A bystander would then use the defibrillator on the person experiencing the heart attack.

 The research team gained permission from the Swedish Transport Agency and the Swedish Civil Aviation Administration to fly out of sight of the drone operator.

 “In areas with longer ambulance response times of up to 30 minutes, the chances of surviving a cardiac arrest are tiny,” Claesson said.

 “Drones able to deliver defibrillators can reach the patient inside the first few minutes and are thus a new and important complement to existing emergency services. With an early shock from a defibrillator within the first three to five minutes after cardiac arrest, up to 70 per cent of patients can survive the event.”