In the wee hours of April 19, a custom-made drone roughly the size of a washing machine lifted off from a neighborhood in southwestern Baltimore and whisked a human kidney to a nearby hospital, where a team of surgeons successfully transplanted the organ into a critically ill patient.
The 2.8-mile, 10-minute drone flight was the first in the world to deliver an organ — but it almost certainly won’t be the last. Drones, aka unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are now delivering medical supplies in Rwanda and other African nations, as well as in the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu, and experts say organ-delivering medical drones are poised to take off in the United States.
“Organ drones have the potential to improve access to transplants, decrease costs and improve quality,” Joseph R. Scalea, a transplant surgeon at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and the leader of the team behind the proof-of-concept flight, told NBC News MACH in an email.
The nighttime drone flight followed a three-year collaboration among doctors, researchers, engineers and aviation experts at the university, the University of Maryland Medical Center and the Living Legacy Foundation of Maryland, a Baltimore-based organization that oversees organ procurement in the state.
In an email to NBC News MACH, Robert Graboyes, a senior research fellow at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia, and an expert in medical innovation, called the flight “a stunning achievement.”
Of course, the flight represented more than that to Trina Glipsy, 44, of Baltimore, who received the drone-delivered kidney after spending eight years on dialysis. “I feel very fortunate, especially after watching so many people pass being on dialysis,” she told the New York Times. “I’m seeing a lot of people die and I’m like, ‘It’s taking so long, it might not happen for me either.”
A matter of seconds
For the best shot at saving lives, organs must be transplanted as quickly as possible after they are removed from donors’ bodies. But organs can’t be transplanted until they’re transported to where they’re needed — whether it’s across town or across the country. And the usual methods of transporting organs, which include motor vehicles, helicopters and airplanes, have significant limitations.
“Charters are too expensive, commercial aircraft is too slow and small aircraft at inconvenient hours are dangerous to transplant teams,” said Scalea, who was also a member of the surgical team that transplanted the kidney at the medical center. Drone delivery could cut the time organs spend in transit by 70 percent, he added.