The delivery, carried out across a densely populated urban area in Baltimore, is intended to show that organs can be safely transported across long distances by unmanned vehicles
A US hospital has taken delivery of a donated kidney via a custom-built drone, in what researchers called the first test of its kind.
The kidney was transported over a predetermined three-mile, 10-minute route to the University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM) in Baltimore.
But researchers said drones could ultimately speed up time-critical organ deliveries and reduce unexpected delays.
The United Network for Organ Sharing said nearly 114,000 people were on organ waiting lists in the US last year, with 1.5 percent of organs failing to make it to their destination and nearly 4 percent being delayed by two hours or more.
The kidney’s recipient, a 44-year-old from Baltimore, had been on dialysis since 2011.
“This whole thing is amazing,” she said. “Years ago, this was not something that you would think about.”
UMSOM worked with the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC) in Baltimore on the test flight, as well as unmanned aviation and engineering experts at the Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Test Site, part of the engineering departmente of the University of Maryland, College Park, and organ procurement organisation The Living Legacy Foundation.
“This was a complex process,” said Joseph Scalea, assistant professor of surgery at UMSOM, who is the project leader and one of the surgeons who performed the transplant. “We were successful because of the dedication of all of the people involved over a long period of time.”
The flight required the development of a purpose-built drone, which had sensors for monitoring and tracking the organ, as well as backup propulsion and electronics systems and a parachute recovery mechanism.
As a precaution, police briefly blocked ground traffic along the flight path, which took place over a densely populated urban environment.
The drone, called Human Organ Monitoring and Quality Assurance Apparatus for Long-Distance Travel (HOMAL), moved along an automated route at an altitude of 400 feet, with pilots in visual line-of-sight contact with the drone throughout the flight.
Researchers had previously tested the drone by transporting saline, blood tubes and other materials, and then a healthy, but nonviable, human kidney.
“There is a tremendous amount of pressure knowing there is a person waiting for an organ, but it is also a special privilege for us to be a part of that critical link,” said Matthew Scassero, director of the UAS Test Site.
The Living Legacy Foundation of Maryland chief executive Charlie Alexander said such tests are intended to demonstrate drones can be a viable means of transporting organs over much greater distances.
“This would minimise the need for multiple pilots and flight time and address safety issues we have in our field,” Alexander said.