Organ Transplant Delivery Via Drones

With a population of more than 300,000, the city of St. Louis in Missouri is currently the 20th largest city in the United States. The Globalization and World Cities Research Network has even designated St. Louis as one of 173 global cities, a standard that is used to study how major cities influence the world. For years, St. Louis has been setting the bar in innovation. One such example was the founding of Mid-America Transplant (MTS) in 1974.

Since opening, MTS has shaped the way organ donation and transplant services are carried out. MTS has facilitated organ transplants for hundreds of patients, tissue transplants for hundreds of thousands of patients, and cornea transplants for thousands of patients throughout the St. Louis region. Their mission is to save as many lives as possible while honoring those who donate, easing the process for both patients and donors.

More than 20 years ago, MTS forever changed the way organ donations and transplants are approached. As stated on their website, “In 2001, Mid-America Transplant became the first organ procurement organization (OPO) to open an onsite recovery facility. Before this change, all organ and tissue recovery took place at the hospital where the donor passed away. With a separate facility, our team has access to operating rooms, ICU, labs, and equipment designed specifically for organ and tissue recovery. These innovations empower our team to provide the best possible care for donors and deliver safe, reliable organs and tissues for transplant.”

In September of 2022, MTS took another step towards the future after naming Kevin Lee as CEO and president upon Diane Brockmeire’s retirement. It was a unanimous board decision to promote Lee who had already been serving as the company’s executive vice president and COO. “Throughout his years with our organization, Kevin has demonstrated an unyielding focus on maintaining and promoting Mid-America Transplant’s status as a visionary leader in organ transplantation and tissue procurement, and his commitment to making more organs available is unwavering,” said Dr. Richard Bucholz, Mid-America Transplant board chair. “We look forward to this next phase of the organization under his leadership.”

Just a short while after stepping into his new role, Lee is proving that MTS is once again poised to reshape the organ and transplant process by embracing drone technology. While much of the donations and transplants the MTS orchestrates are carried out in their private facility, they also work constantly with regional hospitals. Currently, to transport donations and samples throughout the region, MTS uses a small airplane flying in and out of Spirit Airport in Chesterfield, MO. It is a time consuming process that costs around $10,000 round trip.

After seeing how companies like Zipline have been using drones to transport medications, vaccines, and blood samples throughout regions of Africa, Lee realized that this would be the next big step for MTS. Over the last several months MTS has been working with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to develop a compliant drone delivery program. The goal is to use a 40lb, fixed wing drone, with an 8ft wingspan. The drone would be able to sustain 100 miles of flight before easily swapping out the battery. The best part is that, by using a drone, MTS can make multiple flights a day that only cost $1,000-$2,000.

The main obstacle is getting clearance to fly drone BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line Of Sight), an issue that nearly everyone in the drone industry is trying to solve. However, it seems that MTS may have found an excellent route for operating a drone BVLOS. “The drone operator, which would most likely in this model would be stationed at a facility in Rolla, would use a vertical takeoff to lift the drone to approximately to 600 feet in altitude and fly that drone along a predetermined flight pattern,” Lee explained. “Most often it would be above a railway line since those are cleared for drone usage by the FAA.”

As in all projects involving drones, safety is the number one concern, so there are still a few kinks that need to be ironed out. “Best case scenario, we’re 12 months away,” said Lee. “But probably a more realistic is 24 months to ensure we can receive clearance from all required entities and stand up to what we believe is the initial phase of four drones based somewhere in the Rolla area to fly missions in a 100 mile radius.” Once all regulations are met, MTS will first use drones to transport blood samples. They hope to quickly move onto the next phase that would see drones transporting life saving organ and tissue donations to the nearly 1,400 patients on the region’s transplant list.

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