Successful trials have been carried out by the University of South Australia on the use of drones to remotely measure heart and breathing rates in people aged two and 40.

The researchers used advanced image-processing systems to carry out the trials and the technology being development could have an impact on reducing the spread of infections in neonatal care.

The project supervisor, sensory systems professor Javaan Chahl, explained the origins of the system.

“The norm is to stick electrodes on children to measure heart rates,” said Chahl.

“Without any ill-intention, sometimes doctors in developing countries would re-use these electrodes due to a shortage of instruments.

“This has led to an infection control problem, where you may move skin infections from one child to the next.

“So, you can see a need for having a non-contact sensor.”

The tech could also be used to monitor the vital signs of elderly residents in care facilities and should not become too invasive on people’s privacy believes Chahl.

“The drones don’t need to capture what you’re doing. 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," he said.

“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.”

The tech is currently being used to detect heart and breathing rates, which it can do as accurately as standard heart monitors using a stabilised Go-Pro camera.

The sophisticated image-processing systems then assess the video footage produced.

It is also being developed to detect vital signs of people in hard-to-reach situations like war zones, natural disasters or those stranded in remote locations.

The research has been going for three years, but still has another year to go, according to Professor Chahl, who also made clear that despite the drones’ capabilities the primary focus is currently on reducing infection in neonatal settings.

“The work with the neonatal subjects is something we are just going through the process of now,” he said.

“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.”