Could Drones Be Used to Deliver Transplant Organs?

Doctor believes that drones could make organ transport faster, cheaper and more reliable—and cut down the wait time for transplants.

Drones might be the ideal technology to deliver organs to transplant patients—and a test program could soon make this premise a reality.

Dr. Joseph Scalea, transplant surgeon at the University of Maryland Medical Center, is working with a group of researchers to explore if drones are a suitable method for transporting organs . The team recently concluded a series of 14 test flights that demonstrate the potential for drones to work as organ couriers.

“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,” said Scalea. “That’s frustrating, so I wanted to develop a better system for doing that.”

The team used a DJI M600 Pro drone for the experiment. Its six motors lie directly below their respective rotors—and further away from its cargo, a smart cooler that contains an organ, reducing the organ’s exposure to heat from the robot’s motors. The team also designed a wireless biosensor that measures the organ’s temperature, barometric pressure, altitude, vibration and GPS location while it’s being transported. Finally, the team used a kidney that was not a viable transplant to test its drone.

The results, published by the IEEE, show the test was a success. Biopsies of the kidney before and after the flight showed it remained undamaged. The temperature of the kidney remained at a stable 2.5°C, the air pressure matched the altitude, and the drone flew up to 67.6 kph. The kidney was even subjected to marginally fewer vibrations than it would have been exposed to on a fixed wing plane.

Maryland University research team describes its drone-delivered organ project.

Organs don’t last very long outside the body, which means they must get to their intended recipients as soon as possible—often on short notice, making every second critical. But the current organ transport system relies on couriers, commercial airline schedules and expensive charter flights. Any delay or mistake during this process could mean the organ loses its effectiveness—or deteriorates so much that it can’t be used at all.

These costs and mistakes could be reduced by using drones. “It will be faster and cheaper and more predictable,” said Scalea.

There are regulatory obstacles to overcome. The FAA strictly enforces limits on drone use, but the agency is planning to make changes based on data from 10 pilot programs—two of which plan to transport medical supplies.

Those changes would make it possible for drones to make the organ transportation system—which supplies organs for more than 30,000 transplants a year—faster and more efficient. “Drones really work for this purpose,” said Scalea.

Read more about how drones are helping people at Traffic Crash Assessment is Faster and More Accurate with Drones.