The first-ever organ delivered by drone was transplanted into a patient with kidney failure at the University of Maryland Medical Center, capping more than three years of work to show unmanned aircraft can safely transport life-saving organs and tissue.
The effort began when transplant surgeon Dr. Joseph Scalea, frustrated by slow pace of commercial flights and high cost of charters, began exploring faster means of delivering kidneys, livers and other organs that can quickly deteriorate.
“This new technology has the potential to help widen the donor organ pool and access to transplantation,” Scalea said during a news conference announcing the successful demonstration. “Delivering an organ from a donor to a patient is a sacred duty with many moving parts. It is critical that we find ways of doing this better.”
Scalea jump-started work with drones that others in this country and elsewhere also have explored to deliver all manner of medical supplies. This is the first effort to transport organs.
Transportation has long posed challenges for the organ donation system that already can’t meet demand. There are 113,702 people on the national waiting list for organs, and 18 people a day die waiting for a transplant, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing, the nonprofit manager of the organ transplant system.
Some organs have been wasted because of transportation delays and mishaps such as one last December when a human heart was left on a Southwest Airlines plane. Valves from the heart were still usable.
The Maryland patient was a 44-year-old woman from Baltimore who spent eight years on dialysis before her transplant.
“This whole thing is amazing,” said the recently discharged woman, who chose not to be identified. “Years ago, this was not something that you would think about.”
The organ was flown 2.6 miles in 10 minutes across Baltimore from St. Agnes Hospital to the Maryland hospital downtown in the early morning of April 19 for the transplant, according to AiRXOS, a unit of GE Aviation that participated in the demonstration. Such a trip takes 15-20 minutes by car depending on traffic.
University of Maryland officials still face logistical issues in developing a wide-ranging organ delivery system. First, the Federal Aviation Administration has to approve such uses, though officials have indicated they are interested and already have approved pilot programs involving drones in several states.
This is a shift for the FAA, which mainly has been concerned with hobbyists who still dominate drone use in the United States at almost a million registered users. There are, however, 290,000 drones registered for commercial uses such as wildfire mapping, agricultural and weather monitoring, disaster management, law enforcement, utility inspection, telecommunications and real estate photography.
Other countries with transportation infrastructure gaps have explored use of drones to deliver medical supplies, including blood.
To make organ delivery possible, waivers would be needed to fly at night, over populated areas and out of the pilot’s sight, faster than 100 mph or above 400 feet. The agency has announced plans for more permanent changes.
Another hurdle is that drones capable of flying across the country aren’t yet commercially available. Maryland engineers said they would need to be engine- rather than battery-powered, and they would need the ability to avoid hitting obstacles.
That’s where GE’s AiRXOS came in. The company is developing an air mobility platform for drones to address these issues.
Scalea, an assistant professor of surgery in Maryland’s School of Medicine, along with engineering and aviation experts, already had designed a cardboard cooler with sensors for monitoring the organs by cellphone. They also created their own drone.
“We had to create a new system that was still within the regulatory structure of the FAA, but also capable of carrying the additional weight of the organ, cameras, and organ tracking, communications and safety systems over an urban, densely populated area — for a longer distance and with more endurance,” said Matthew Scassero, director of the university’s UAS Test Site in St. Mary’s County, which is part of the Clark School of Engineering in College Park. “There’s a tremendous amount of pressure knowing there’s a person waiting for that organ.”
But there is support for drone delivery, including at the national organ network, which has faced criticism and a court challenge to make organ disbursement more geographically equitable. There also is waste — about 14% of donated organs are discarded, partially because of reduced quality. Some organs, such as kidneys, can last on ice for a commercial flight across the country. But others, such as hearts, lungs and livers, last less time. A hand or face can wait no more more than a couple of hours.
Some organs, about 1.5%, never make it to their destination. Nearly 4% had an unanticipated delay of two or more hours.
Scalea, who has driven to pick up organs himself, has said that drones could avoid airline delays and mishaps, traffic and even bad weather, cutting travel time for the farthest deliveries by 70 percent.
AiRXOS CEO Ken Stewart said the flight “demonstrated how air mobility can transform the delivery of medical care in ways that can have significant impact on lives. It lays the foundation for future advanced drone operations.”
Charlie Alexander, CEO of The Living Legacy Foundation, which coordinates organ donation in Maryland and worked with Scalea’s team, said the drones are still at the proof-of-concept stage but promising.
“If we can prove that this works, then we can look at much greater distances of unmanned organ transport,” he said. “This would minimize the need for multiple pilots and flight time and address safety issues we have in our field.”