Up in the sky! It’s a bird, It’s a plane! No, wait! It’s a kidney?

This past spring, a kidney was flown by drone over 2 miles in about 10 minutes to deliver a kidney that was used in a successful transplant operation at the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC).

The team behind the effort wanted to explore ways to use unmanned vehicles like drones to expand access to donor organs and improve the efficiency and reliability of organ transport. Drones can fly over traffic jams and take more direct routes than vehicles stuck on terra firma-based infrastructure.

A drone from the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore delivers a donor kidney for transplantation.

To prepare for the flight, some sticky technological problems had to be implemented.
A custom-built drone (or unmanned aerial system-UAS, as the technologically sophisticated call it) was developed with eight rotors, so it could continue to fly, even if some of the rotors failed. Back up propellers, motors, batteries, power distribution place were all onboard. And even a parachute recovery system in case things really went south.

A special apparatus maintained and monitored the organ, keeping a virtual eye on a variety of metrics and transmitting that data back to controllers on the ground.

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 worked together to bring the project to fruition. In addition, AiRXOS, part of GE Aviation, monitored the flight, and TEDCO provided funding. The University of Maryland, Baltimore’s tech transfer office and the City of Baltimore also provided additional resources.

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