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Drone adds another layer to emergency services in Manatee County

Archer First Response Systems launched a pilot program at the EMS station in Lakewood Ranch.


The drone sits inside a ground hub, ready to deploy, in the side yard of the Lakewood Ranch EMS station.
The drone sits inside a ground hub, ready to deploy, in the side yard of the Lakewood Ranch EMS station.
Photo by Lesley Dwyer
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Ten years before Gordon Folkes presented a drone to the Manatee County Commission as a lifesaving device, he was a sophomore at Florida State University who thought a drone would be a fantastic way to transport beer across a golf course.

The idea, that’s since been developed into Archer First Response Systems, was called Sky Caddy for about two months. 

Instead of stocking drones with beers and sandwiches, Folkes is now stocking drones with automated external defibrillators, tourniquets and nasal sprays that can reverse drug overdoses. 

Archer software is tapped into 5,000 911 call systems nationwide. The program is being tested for the first time in Manatee County.

Once Folkes decided to add an AED to the Sky Caddy, the entire business plan changed. 

“It was kind of an epiphany that (treating cardiac arrests) is a substantially more important problem to solve than getting beer across the golf course,” Folkes said. “We were Archer First Response Systems from then forward.” 

Folkes initially decided to put AEDs on the caddies because he was a lifeguard in high school. He learned basic CPR training and understood the difference between a cardiac arrest and a heart attack. 

An attack is a plumbing issue when a clogged artery prevents circulation. An arrest can happen to anyone at any time.

“The average age of death is 40 (for a cardiac arrest),” Folkes said. “It has nothing to do with diet or exercise. It just happens. You need a reset on the heart to get it out of fibrillation. Then your heart beats normally, and you’re usually fine.”

Folkes said there’s a four to five minute window to get the heart to reset before brain damage or death occurs. EMS in Manatee County has an average response time of 8.04 minutes. Dispatch operators receive about 1,500 calls a day.

A 2018 study conducted by the National Institute of Health found a 67% survival rate in cardiac arrest patients when a bystander used an AED versus a 43% survival rate for patients who had to wait for EMS to arrive. In addition, 57% of patients survived with minimal disabilities after the bystander used the AED versus 33% for those who had to wait for EMS.

The Publix you shop in likely has an AED in the store. The Lakewood Ranch Country Club keeps one in the front office. There are 282 businesses across Manatee County that keep an AED on hand in case of an emergency. The PulsePointAED app tracks where the machines are located.

However, the overwhelming majority of businesses and homeowners don’t keep the machines on hand.


How it works

The Archer software is integrated into the 911 call system, so the drone is simply one more layer of emergency service. It doesn’t replace the traditional EMS response. An ambulance will still be dispatched, but the plan is that the drone will arrive first. 

“The average response time for the drone is less than two minutes, while an ambulance's average response is eight minutes,” said James Crutchfield, Public Safety Department deputy director and EMS chief. “The calls that the drone is prepared to assist with are time-sensitive and can make a significant impact for individuals experiencing medical emergencies.”

In 2023, Manatee County EMS responded to 962 suspected opioid-involved overdoses. Opioids can slow and stop breathing. Narcan is a nasal spray that can temporarily block the effect of the opioids to restore breathing.

The drone operates as a public aircraft and is dispatched like any other emergency vehicle. If a 911 call involves cardiac arrest, opioid overdose or mass hemorrhaging, dispatch operators deploy the drone. 

This is the Alta X drone being used by EMS. An AED, tourniquet and Narcan nasal spray are packed inside the box.
Courtesy image

Operators are given scripts to guide callers through retrieving and using the items. Upon arrival, the drone hovers 200 feet above the delivery site and slowly drops the package down on a tether. 

Instructions for each item are included in the package, but even the AED is user-friendly. 

“The defibrillators have a video screen built in on top of them (for instructions),” Folkes said. “It’s a bilingual device. It’s capable of shocking both adults and children. There’s a child button on the top that you can click. This particular defibrillator will automatically shock the victim if needed, so there’s no button to push. You apply the pads, step back and you’re done.”

The pilot program is being conducted at the Lakewood Ranch EMS station on Malachite Drive. The drone sits stocked in a housing unit that automatically rolls open when deployment is initiated. 

The Alta X drone can carry up to eight pounds of cargo. Its 33-inch propellers stabilize the aircraft in high winds. The drone has a certified parachute recovery system that will land it safely if anything malfunctions. 

Archer isn’t in the business of building drones, so the company partnered with Freefly Systems. Freefly has been building drones for the cinematography industry since 2009, and Folkes said it builds a good product. 

Manatee County is paying $1 a month to be Archer’s test site for a year. The monthly rate will rise to $10,000 as a paying customer. That’s a turnkey price that includes the drone, software and maintenance.

The initial coverage area is only 3.5 square miles with service from sunup to sundown, Monday through Friday. The coverage area will increase to 35 square miles once FAA approval is received any time between August and the end of the year. When approved, service will be available 24 hours a day. 

The program launched on May 1. With such a limited coverage area for the time being, the drone has only received one request for deployment. Crutchfield couldn’t comment on the reason for the request. 

As advanced as it is, technology can’t trump Mother Nature. A thunderstorm prevented the drone from being deployed to that call.


Cultural headwinds

Folkes started Archer First Response Systems with only a $5,000 grant awarded for technological innovation by Genivia Inc., but finances were the least of his problems. 

The idea was ahead of its time. Folkes was talking seriously about a technology that was mainly viewed as a toy 10 years ago. 

“We were battling a cultural headwind, where people were like, ‘You’re going to send a remote control helicopter to a dying person. Get real,’” he said. 

The FAA didn’t know how to handle drones either. They were mainly being flown in fields by hobbyists, so there were no regulations in place.

“Then, in the blink of an eye, there’s more unmanned air traffic in the national airspace than there is manned traffic,” Folkes said. “(The FAA) had to scramble quickly to try and put regulations and governance in place to protect the national airspace, protect the safety of manned aviation and also understand how to integrate unmanned air systems within the functional airspace.” 

Gordon Folkes presents Archer First Response Systems to commissioners on April 23. Steve Harris, senior vice president of payor and government affairs for Tampa General Hospital, is standing on the left. Director of Public Safety Jodie Fiske and Deputy County Administrator Courtney DePol are standing on the right.
Courtesy image

The FAA created a structure for commercial drones, but Archer is not a commercial operation because no one at the delivery site is paying for a product or service. Still, the FAA viewed Archer as a commercial operation. The disagreement ensued for over three years. 

By 2019, drones had become commonplace and the FAA had agreed Archer was not a commercial operation, so fundraising began. Folkes spearheaded the effort himself. By 2021, he’d raised about $1.3 million. 

Archer has never had a staff of more than four people. Right now, it’s down to Folkes and Spencer Hehl. Fate put Folkes and Hehl on a team together for the Orlando Smart Cities Hackathon in 2017. Their team won, and Hehl got a job.

“We’re small but mighty,” Folkes said. “We were a small startup, and we kind of went head to head with one of the largest three-letter agencies in the nation. We came out on top, which is cool.” 

 

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Lesley Dwyer

Lesley Dwyer is a staff writer for East County and a graduate of the University of South Florida. After earning a bachelor’s degree in professional and technical writing, she freelanced for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Lesley has lived in the Sarasota area for over 25 years.

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