Flying transplant kidneys by drone

Photo by Dr. J. Scalea, via University of Maryland Medical Center
Photo by Dr. J. Scalea, via University of Maryland Medical Center

When kidneys are harvested for transplant, they need to be immediately transported under strict temperature control to another hospital for implantation. Common issues like traffic jams or accidents can keep those kidneys from being used. Now a team led by Dr. Joseph Scalea of the University of Maryland Medical Center has done a trial flight of a kidney on a DJI M600 Pro drone to see if drones could be used to quickly fly kidneys and other organs between hospitals.

The team used a wireless biosensor on a kidney that wasn’t healthy enough for transplantation to measure temperature, barometric pressure, and other data while the organ was in flight. The team found that the kidney’s temperature remained stable and it wasn’t damaged — even after 14 drone flight missions.

On its longest mission, the drone carried the instrumented kidney over 2.4 kilometers, which is roughly equivalent to the distance between many inner city hospitals. The team also found that the kidney was subjected to less vibration that a control delivery mission in a fixed-wing turboprop airplane.

In order to make drone delivery of transplant organs viable, there are still some hurdles that need to be overcome, including the FAA’s current requirement that drones need to be flown within visible line-of-sight at an altitude of 400 feet or less. Considering the lifesaving potential of this technology, we hope that the FAA issues waivers for hospitals soon.

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