Drones Can Do Liver: Maryland Tests Show Potential of Unmanned Organ Transport


Pizza, pad thai, burgers, milkshakes, Amazon products… All have been cited as the kind of cargo drones could transport from business to customer.

But we’ve known for a while that these relatively superficial drone delivery efforts will struggle to win the trust of regulators and the public. It’s perhaps too soon for your take-out to go from kitchen to doorstep via drone.

Instead, it’s the life-saving delivery applications that will carry us forward. We’ve seen as much with Zipline’s pioneering efforts in Africa, and the company’s subsequent success in bringing medical drone deliveries to the US as part of the Drone Integration Pilot Program.

In Europe, bloods and medical supplies are already being flown between Swiss hospitals using drones. The potential of airborne defibrillators has been tried and tested, too. So what’s next? How else can drones be used to take supplies from A to B faster than conventional means?

kidney transplant delivery maryland drone

University of Maryland completes organ drone transport tests

Successful organ transplants rely on a lot of complicated details. But one of the simple factors is time. Once a patient and organ have been matched, every second counts. The longer it takes to get that organ to the patient, the less likely it will function properly.

One transplant surgeon from the University of Maryland Medical Center, Dr Joseph Scalea, is looking to drones to cut the time it takes to deliver organs to where they need to be.

“I frequently encounter situations where there’s simply no way to get an organ to me fast enough to do a transplant, and then those life-saving organs do not get transplanted into my patient,” he told IEEE. “And that’s frustrating, so I wanted to develop a better system for doing that.”

His solution was to organize a real-life test into the potential of organ drone delivery, with a little help from the University of Maryland’s Department of Aerospace Engineering.

Drone organ delivery gif

The researchers used a DJI M600 Pro and a kidney that was not deemed healthy enough to be used for a transplant. Instead of throwing it in the trash or handed to medical students, the organ was flown on 14 different missions to assess how drone flight would impact its state.

In total, the kidney was in the air for just over an hour. One mission was around 2,400 meters, designed to replicate the journey an organ would take between inner city hospitals.

DJI’s M600 Pro was used because its six motors sit below their respective rotors. The thinking was that the rotors and their heat would be as far away as possible from the smart cooler dangling from the bottom of the drone.

Also included in the payload was a specially designed wireless biosensor, the aim of which was to measure temperature, barometric pressure, altitude, vibration, and GPS location of the organ during transport.

The results were published in the IEEE Journal of Translational Engineering in Health and Medicine on 6 November.

Drones Can Do Liver

The experiment found that during flight the kidney remained at a stable temperature – a cool 2.5 ˚C. Air pressure and altitude were not problematic and the organ hit a peak speed 67.6 km/h.

You might expect that flying an organ through the sky via drone would be a bumpy ride. But actually, the testing found that the kidney was subjected to fewer vibrations compared with a control delivery mission in a fixed-wing plane.

Finally, the research team performed biopsies on the kidney before and after its drone flights and found no damage from the journey. The conclusion then is that the experiment was a success: drones and organ delivery could really work.

“I think that what we did here is very cool, very exciting,” said Scalea. “This is the first step among a series that I think will get patients closer to their life-saving organs quicker, and with better outcomes.”

The next step is to test the principle with organs actually designated for transplants. There might also be trials involving alternative organs. Hopefully liver will be next on the list, if only because the Drone Do-Liver-y headline will be too good to pass up on.

Scalea has suggested that the next experiments will take place early next year.

Malek Murison is a freelance writer and editor with a passion for tech trends and innovation. He handles product reviews, major releases and keeps an eye on the enthusiast market for DroneLife.
Email Malek
Twitter:@malekmurison

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