A drone flew for more than an hour to deliver a fresh human kidney - and it arrived healthy

Picture: University of Maryland

  • A US University team trials live organ-by-drone test
  • Kidney stayed healthy during more than four hours of testing
  • Drone travelled up to 4.5km with no damage to kidney

A trial to deliver a functional human kidney to a patient by drone has been declared a success.

Back in March, a team from the University of Maryland Medical Centre were notified that a kidney was available. It was healthy enough for research, but not quite fit for a human patient.

It was, however, perfect for the team and associates at the university’s Department of Aerospace Engineering, to test a theory about whether drones could deliver human organs safely.

First, the kidney had to make a 24-hour, 1600km trip to Baltimore by regular means.

For the drone tests, a carrier device was developed called Human Organ Monitoring and Quality Assurance Apparatus for Long-Distance Travel (HOMAL).

HOMAL is “designed to measure temperature, barometric pressure, altitude, vibration, and location via global positioning system (GPS) during transportation”. There’s a patent pending on that.

The 11cm x 5cm kidney was given a biopsy before and after the 4.5 hours of testing, which included 62 minutes of flight time with the drone.

The drone itself was a DJI M600 Pro – worth nearly $8000, but chosen for this experiment because its six motors sit directly under their rotors, keeping heat away from the HOMAL. Like so:

Picture: University of Maryland

In the next 24 hours, the drone carried the kidney on 14 missions. The longest was just over an hour and the maximum distance was 3 miles (4.8km).

The team chose the 3-mile mark as it “models the distance between hospitals in cities such as Baltimore”.

And the kidney came through all of it in better than expected health, according to the biopsies. In fact, no damage was recorded, and it was noted that the organ had actually been subject to less vibration stress than it would during a regular delivery mission aboard a turboprop plane.

BI was reporting on medical drones as a future technology just two years ago. Now, the University of Maryland Medical Center has made a huge step forward in showing drones can deliver organs in surprisingly good health.

“I think that what we did here is very cool, very exciting,” Dr Joseph Scalea of the University of Maryland Medical Center told IEEE.

“This is the first step among a series that I think will get patients closer to their life-saving organs quicker, and with better outcomes.”

Scalea believes that another test to actually deliver a kidney and transplant it successfully might be achieved “early in 2019”.

Organs on demand

The next hurdle is speed and regulations.

National figures show that around 20% of donated kidneys in the US are discarded because they can’t get to the matching donor quick enough. That’s as many as 2700 life-saving organs in the bin each year.

Right now, the speed and payload capacity of drones is well below what’s needed to make a dent in that figure.

Ideally, researchers say, “a transplant drone would need the range and speed (480-800 kmh, or 300-500 mph) of a jet airplane”.

Those drones can can hit 150kmh and above are for the most part too small to carry an organ payload.

But we’ve seen at least one Australian company developing drones that can lift well in excess of the weight of a kidney, and closing in on speeds of 200kmh.

As for regulations that require a drone to be always in sight of the operator, Scalea is confident the current “national discussion” about drone tech is heading in the right direction.

“I think that these things are going to be addressable,” he told IEEE.

You can read all about the kidney-carrying drone test here in the IEEE Journal of Translational Engineering in Health and Medicine.

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