Drone delivers transplant organ in world first

2 min read

An unmanned aerial system (UAS) has delivered a kidney to a transplant patient in what is claimed to be the first drone operation of its kind.

(Credit: UMD)

Developed by the University of Maryland (UMD) and University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM), the custom-built drone featured specially designed equipment for maintaining and monitoring a viable human organ. Safety features included backup propellers and motors, dual batteries, a backup power distribution board and a parachute recovery system in case of major failure.

“We built in a lot of redundancies, because we want to do everything possible to protect the payload,” said Anthony Pucciarella, director of operations at the UMD UAS Test Site.

Known as HOMAL (Human Organ Monitoring and Quality Assurance Apparatus for Long-Distance Travel), the platform measures and maintains temperature, barometric pressure, altitude, vibration, and GPS location during transportation. This data is transmitted to the smartphones of transplant personnel using a wireless mesh network.

“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 UMD’s UAS Test Site. “There’s a tremendous amount of pressure knowing there’s a person waiting for that organ, but it’s also a special privilege to be a part of this critical mission.”

After several test runs with lower-value medical payloads, on April 19th HOMAL flew for around one mile to deliver a viable human kidney to a 44-year-old Baltimore man who had spent the previous eight years on dialysis. Following a successful transplant operation, the man was discharged from hospital on April 23rd.

“This history-making flight not only represents a breakthrough from a technological point of view, but provides an exemplary demonstration of how engineering expertise and ingenuity ultimately serve human needs—in this case, the need to improve the reliability and efficiency of organ delivery to hospitals conducting transplant surgery,” said Professor Darryll J Pines, dean of UMD’s School of Engineering.

According to project lead and UMSOM surgeon Joseph Scalea, the drone breakthrough could have significant implications for the organ donor industry. By extending the viability of donated organs, it could make transplants available to a wider pool of people, as well as increase the chances of successful transplants.

“There remains a woeful disparity between the number of recipients on the organ transplant waiting list and the total number of transplantable organs,” said Scalea, who was one of the surgeons that performed the transplant. “This new technology has the potential to help widen the donor organ pool and access to transplantation.”