Fewer failed organ transplants may be possible with medical drone deliveries. University of Maryland researchers recently transported a healthy kidney via drone during a test flight.
There are approximately 138 million people in the U.S. registered as organ donors according to the Division of Transplantation. However, there is still a significant organ shortage, resulting in an unsettling 20 deaths every day among people on the wait list for an organ transplant. Despite the number of registered donors, countless organs are lost each year. Part of the problem is transportation.
The Organ Shortage Issue
Source: DoT, OrganDonor.gov
Donated organs have to be maintained on artificial support until a matching recipient is found. Minutes matter, since organs remain healthy only for a short period of time after removal from the donor. The process of transporting the organ to the recipient can be time consuming and expensive. Methods depend on the distance involved and can include ambulances, helicopters, and commercial airplanes.
Drones May Become the Most Efficient Way to Transport Organs to Transplantation Patients
Dr. Joe Scalea, transplant surgeon from the University of Maryland Medical Center, believes drones can provide a faster, less expensive, and more efficient means of transporting organs before they become unusable.
“In a time when cars can drive themselves, it just seems so crazy that I can’t get a lifesaving organ to my patient in the appropriate amount of time. I just don’t accept that,” Dr. Scalea stated in an interview with Cincinnati Public Radio.
Dr. Scalea organized a research team to test the possibility of delivering organs with drones. The University of Maryland’s recently launched UMD Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site was the ideal location to run the test.
The tests, which included 14 drone missions and a flight that covered three miles, revealed that a kidney could travel safely without damage on a drone. The drone used was a modified, six-rotor, DJI M600 Pro.
UMD Successfully Transports Human Kidney with Drone
The test results were published as a report in the IEEE Journal of Translational Engineering in Health and Medicine. In the report, “An Initial Investigation of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) and Real-Time Organ Status Measurement for Transporting Human Organs,” the authors explain that “if organs could be moved by drone, instead of ill-timed commercial aircraft or expensive charter flights, lifesaving organs could be transplanted more quickly.”
The team awaited the kidney for months before finally receiving one that was healthy but not suitable for transplant, and therefore offered up for research. To preserve the integrity of the kidney, the team developed a refrigerated and pressure-monitored container to transport it in. The kidney was also tracked in flight with a global positioning system.
Amazingly, biopsies of the kidney taken before and after the test flights revealed no damage resulting from drone travel.
Continuing Drone Delivery Research at UMD
Dr. Scalea and his research team plan to run additional flight test, anticipating that this is just the beginning of a series of tests to get patients closer to life-saving organs faster. In future tests, the team may experiment with other types of organs and run trials with healthy organs designated for actual transplants.
The University of Maryland Medical Center posted this short video on Facebook, showing Dr. Scalea with the drone carrying the kidney approaching for landing behind him.