Researchers in Ontario are attempting to figure out how to deliver life-saving medical supplies in record times by answering a simple question with profound implications: Can an ambulance or a drone reach the scene of a medical emergency faster?

To test this, medical personnel simulated a cardiac arrest emergency in a rural area north of Toronto last month in order to see if an ambulance or a drone would reach the pretend patient first.

The pilot project’s tests began with a mock 911 call and the dispatch of an ambulance from the Region of Peel’s EMS headquarters in Brampton, Ont. At the same time, a remotely controlled drone carrying an automated external defibrillator (AED) took to the skies from a nearby industrial park.

As the ambulance fought traffic to reach the scene of the imagined emergency, located approximately eight kilometres away, the drone soared high above and arrived at the site first – every time.

“What was amazing is you could see from a distance the drone coming and then you could see the drone landing and you couldn’t see an EMS vehicle there,” Dr. Sheldon Cheskes, an emergency medicine specialist and researcher at Sunnybrook Health Sciences, told CTV News.

The pilot project’s drones, supplied by Drone Delivery Canada, were able to fly at speeds of about 80 km/h for the test. During the four or five test runs the researchers conducted, the drone arrived at the scene, on average, three to four minutes before the ambulance.

Cheskes said those precious few minutes could make all the difference in a cardiac arrest patient’s outcome because a bystander would be able to use the drone-delivered cardiac defibrillator and apply the shock before paramedics arrived in an ambulance.

“Survival in rural communities is really abysmal for cardiac arrest so this really has an opportunity to change things,” he said.

Peter Dundas, Chief of Peel Regional Paramedic Services, which is assisting in the research, said one of the critical factors in saving a cardiac arrest patient is initiating CPR and applying an AED as soon as possible.

“If it can be done in seconds that would be great,” he said. “A drone can’t fly in seconds, but it could possibly get to the side of that person much quicker than we can. Those three or four minutes that they get there ahead of us, could be the positive outcome for that person to go back home to their loved ones.”

Before that happens, however, studies will have to prove that drones are reliable, cost-effective and able to withstand Canadian climates.

In Renfrew, Ont., paramedics are already testing just that as the first service in Canada to receive approval from Transport Canada to use drones in medical emergencies.

The drones are made by InDro Robotics located in Salt Spring Island, B.C. and are piloted by EMS staff themselves. They’ve been using the unmanned aircraft to deliver life-saving medical supplies, such as naloxone kits and floating devices to people who have fallen through ice.

In the U.S., a drone was used for the first time to deliver an organ for transplant by the University of Maryland Medical Center.

There will be more drone trials this summer in Ontario to see if researchers can find a way to drop the drone or AED more quickly from the air to the ground. They will also study the possibility of developing a system to make it easier for bystanders to use the delivered AED, which might include a smartphone or app that would talk them through the process.

Although it seems as if there is still a lot up in the air, Cheskes said he’s convinced drones will be used in emergency healthcare in the near future.

“There’s no question in my mind this is feasible and that we will see this happen. Within the next year to 18 months you will see drones as part of a 911 response,” he said.