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SoCal Lab Testing Autonomous Air Ambulance

PASADENA (CBS News) -- Researchers in California are developing an autonomous drone ambulance that could help get people to a hospital or out of harm's way in an emergency.

It's technology designed to save lives.

Researchers at Caltech describe the autonomous ambulance as the future of emergency response.

"We're calling it actually a personal rescue system," said project director Prof. Mory Gharib.

Gharib says the self-flying rescue drone has been in development for two years.

It is designed to rapidly fly a patient to a hospital or rendezvous point with a doctor.

Researchers envision the vehicle transporting people facing medical emergencies like heart attacks or strokes and airlifting injured or trapped victims from hard to reach disaster zones including wildfire or flood zones.

Sensors inside monitor the patient's vital signs during flight.

With a one of a kind wall, researchers are simulating nearly every weather condition to test how the drone responds.

For now, they're using a 1/5th scale model. The actual drone will be the size of a small car and piloted by an artificial intelligence system.

"That can basically negotiate with situations, reason and make the best decision in order to save the life of the person it carries," said Gharib.

Researchers hope to launch a long range test of a larger, self-flying model before the end of 2018. They predict a full-sized drone rescue system could be in use within three to five years.

Researchers say batteries powering the drone ambulance should allow the vehicle to fly for up to 20 minutes per trip.

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