Dialysis Patient Receives First Successful Drone Delivery of Kidney for Transplant
BY Isabella Lee2 May 2019
In a first-ever advance in human medicine and transplantation, a drone has delivered a donor kidney to surgeons for successful transplantation in a patient with kidney failure at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland.
A custom-built UAS and apparatus designed to maintain and monitor a viable human organ made the flight possible. The life-saving drone flight took place at night on an automated course at a height of 400 feet, permissible due to a daylight operations waiver granted by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to the University of Maryland (UMD).
Watch the flight that made history from takeoff to landing:
Transplant physicians and researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM) and the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC) in Baltimore joined aviation and engineering experts at the Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Test Site, part of the A. James Clark School of Engineering at the University of Maryland, College Park to complete this landmark flight.
The research was also done in collaboration with The Living Legacy Foundation of Maryland (The LLF), a non-profit organ procurement organization.
Building on Prior Success: From Tests Flights to Transplants
We first wrote about the research and test flights occurring at UMD back in December 2018, when they accomplished their first successful test of an organ delivery via drone.
The UAS research team, led by Joseph Scalea, MD, Assistant Professor of Surgery at UMSOM, had received a kidney 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.
The test flight was determined successful when biopsies of the kidney taken before and after the test flights revealed no damage resulting from drone travel.
In the most recent flight last week, the team was able to put their organ drone delivery system to work for genuine medical purposes. A 44-year old patient, Trina Glipsy, at UMMC, was in need of an organ transplant due to kidney failure.
Glipsy was discharged from UMMC on Wednesday, April 24, after a successful transplant procedure involving the kidney delivered by drone.
“This whole thing is amazing. Years ago, this was not something that you would think about,” said Ms. Glipsy, who has been on dialysis since 2011.
How UMD Overcame the Logistical Challenges of Transporting Human Organs via Drone
The successful drone delivery and transplant surgery involved the collaboration of many individuals including, surgeons, engineers, organ procurement specialists, drone pilots, nurses, and the FAA.
This was a complex process. We were successful because of the dedication of all of the people involved over a long period of time.
—Joseph Scalea, MD, Assistant Professor of Surgery at UMSOM
Transportation logistics are often the most complicated part of the organ transplant process, typically involving expensive chartered flights, or relying on the variability of commercial flight schedules, and occasionally resulting in an organ left on a plane, or delays that destroy the organ’s viability, according to Dr. Scalea.
The kidney that was ultimately transplanted to the patient was delivered via a custom unmanned aircraft specifically designed to transport an organ. The aircraft, which was built by UAS test site engineers, needed to meet the rigid medical, technical and regulatory demands of carrying an unaccompanied deceased donor organ for human transplant.
For organ tracking, Dr. Scalea partnered with several medical technology companies to develop the Human Organ Monitoring and Quality Assurance Apparatus for Long-Distance Travel (HOMAL; patent pending). The HOMAL, designed expressly for this project, measures temperature, barometric pressure, altitude, vibration and location via global positioning system during transportation. These are all important parameters for a drone flight that does not have the benefit of a manned aircraft’s pressurized cabin. The parameters from this device are then sent directly to the smart phone of transplant personnel in order to better understand the organ’s location and status.
Dr. Scalea also noted that the flight took place in an urban environment, over a densely-populated area. In order to remain compliant with FAA regulations, the Baltimore Police Department blocked ground traffic briefly along the flight path, while the aircraft flew overhead. The aircraft followed an automated course at a height of 400 feet. Pilots were in radio contact with each other and maintained a visual line of sight throughout the entire 9.52-minute flight.
Drones Have the Ability to Improve Medical Care and Save Lives
According to 2018 data from the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), which manages the organ transplant system in the United States:
- About 1.5 percent of deceased donor organ shipments did not make it to the intended destination; and
- Nearly four percent of shipments experienced an unanticipated delay of two or more hours.
Drone technology has the potential to help patients receive life-saving organs faster and to increase access to transplantation. Maryland faculty and researchers believe this prototype organ transport blazes a trail for the use of drones to expand access to donated organs, improving outcomes for more people in need of organ transplants.
Organs aren’t the only thing being transported by drone in the medical sector. Companies like Matternet, Zipline, and Flirtey have been making history with medical drone deliveries of vaccines, blood, and medicines as well. You can learn more about the ground-breaking work these companies are undertaking here:
- Matternet receives approval to make “routine revenue” drone deliveries on the WakeMed hospital campus in Raleigh, NC
- Zipline Launches World’s Largest Drone Delivery Network in Ghana to Deliver Life-saving Medical Supplies
- Flirtey Secures FAA Waiver for BVLOS Flights in Reno, NV, Will Use It for Medical Drone Deliveries
Share your thoughts on the progress of medical drone deliveries in this thread on our community forum.
Disclosure: Dr. Scalea is the founder of a private data analytics company, Transplant Logistics and Informatics. Funding for this research was provided by the Maryland Technology Development Corporation (TEDCO) with additional resources from the UAS Test Site, UMSOM, UMMC, the University of Maryland, Baltimore, Office of Technology Transfer, and the City of Baltimore.