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University of Maryland Medical Center received the first drone-delivered organ used for transplant

On April 19, a kidney was flown over Baltimore and successfully transplanted into a patient.

University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore was the site of the drone delivery of an organ used in a transplant, officials said.

The flight took place April 19. Beginning at 1 a.m., a kidney was flown for about 10 minutes, covering a distance of 2.6 miles across the city to UMMC. With a scheduled operation time for 5 a.m., the organ was then successfully transplanted into a patient with kidney failure.

The team behind the effort believes use of unmanned vehicles can expand access to donor organs. Doctors see a need to improve the reliability and efficiency of organ delivery, and believe the approach could be faster and safer. Current transport methods involve chartered or commercial flights, and may not cover all geographical areas. There’s also a need from patients: According to the United Network for Organ Sharing, there were nearly 114,000 people on waiting lists for organ transplant.

The effort was a collaboration on multiple fronts.

“As a result of the outstanding collaboration among surgeons, engineers, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), organ procurement specialists, pilots, nurses, and, ultimately, the patient, we were able to make a pioneering breakthrough in transplantation,” Dr. Joseph Scalea the project lead and assistant professor of surgery at University of Maryland School of Medicine, who was one of the surgeons that performed the procedure, said in a statement.

It brought together engineers and aviation experts at the University of Maryland’s A. James Clark School of Engineering, surgeons and researchers at UMMC and the Living Legacy Foundation. AiRXOS, which is part of GE Aviation, also participated by providing monitoring of the flight, and Scalea partnered with several medical technology companies. TEDCO provided funding, and resources were also contributed by University of Maryland, Baltimore’s tech transfer office and the City of Baltimore.

Test flights between medical facilities previously took place at the University of Maryland UAS Test Site in St. Mary’s County, but this was the first time that an organ was delivered for transport. The team from the test site led this flight, as well.

Within the operation, officials said the effort also involved the following tech firsts:

  • An apparatus to maintain and monitor the organ, which monitors a variety of metrics and transmits data to personnel smartphones.
  • A custom-built unmanned aerial system (UAS) with eight rotors, which could be reliable even in the face of part failures. This included backup propellers and motors, dual batteries, a backup power distribution board and a parachute recovery system, per UMMC.
  • Mesh network radios to control and monitor the aircraft, as well as communicate.
  • Aircraft operating systems combining UAS and organ transport standards.

Along with the medical and technical needs, the flight also had to operate within federal flight regulations.

The patient is a 44-year-old Baltimore resident. They spent eight years on dialysis before undergoing the transplant procedure. Following the procedure, the person, who was not identified by officials, was discharged last Tuesday from UMMC.

“This whole thing is amazing. Years ago, this was not something that you would think about,” the kidney recipient said in a statement provided by UMMC.

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