Drones are being used to transport badly needed medical supplies – often across distances of several thousands of miles – to remote villages in Africa, for example, and even to isolated rural areas in the United States. But there’s one kind of supply mission that requires special care – the transport of harvested human organs. Time is of the essence in organ transplants. Even a small delay can render the organ unsuitable for transplant and the needy patient might well die.
So far, just a few successful drone-supported organ delivery cases have been documented. The first occurred in April 2019, when a 45-year old patient at the University of Maryland (UMD) hospital in desperate need of a new kidney, received one via drone. The delivery operation was the culmination of three years of intensive research and testing – 44 experimental flights in all – by a senior UMD surgeon and his drone development team.
A second major breakthrough occurred last October when a pair of human lungs were flown by drone between two hospitals in Toronto, Canada. Alan Hodak, a 63-year old man who had been suffering from pulmonary fibrosis since 2019, received the new pair of lungs. It turns out Hodak’s not just an engineer, but fittingly, he’s also a drone enthusiast.
University Health Network hospitals and a Québec-based company Unither Bioélectronique, coordinated the brief – but historic – drone flight, which lasted just 6 minutes along a 1.5 km route. Unither Bioélectronique has been specializing in the manufacture of organs suitable for human transplant, and has pioneering ways to speed their delivery. But this was the first known drone delivery of lungs for a live patient conducted anywhere in the world. Lung transplants are fairly rare – there are just 2,000 conducted annually, compared to 18,000 kidney transplants, which are the most common. Lungs are especially perishable, and the need to reduce CIT, or “cold time,” which accounts for a high percentage of unusable donor organs, is paramount.
Supporters of organ delivery note that organ transportation has not been substantially innovated in the 60 years since the procedure was first validated. The current system for organ transportation still involves a complex network of couriers and commercial aircraft as well as road vehicles that break down or get trapped in traffic, arriving at hospitals too late to complete a successful transplant. One expert estimates that with drones, as many as 2,500 new kidneys could be successfully transplanted each year – a 15% increase over the current number. And the kidneys would likely be higher quality, reducing the rejection rate and adding to the transplant recipient’s quality of life.
Thanks to recent successes, support for drone delivery of donated or harvested organs is likely to increase sharply in the coming years. But there are still lots of legal, regulatory, technological and logistical hurdles to surmount. For example, most drones currently on the market cannot function as organ drones. The one exception is the DJI M600, which has VTOL (vertical take-off and landing). capabilities and can carry an organ payload. Unmanned drones also lack an accompanying medical professional to ensure that organs are stored and maintained properly. And thus far, drone transplant flights have been short, in part due to limited drone flying time. It may be that long-distance organ drones in the future will be part of a complex and evolving multi-modal logistics operation involving multiple delivery vehicles – in different states, with different rules, and for organ transplant patients with vastly different needs.