Drone with organ delivery box. Researchers from the University of Maryland attach a cooler containing a kidney to a DJI M600 Pro drone in preparation for a test flight. Photo: Joseph Scalea

Drone May Be Option for Organ Delivery when Seconds Matter

When a patient who needs an organ transplantation is finally matched with a donor, every second matters. A longer wait between when an organ is removed from a donor and placed into a recipient leads to poorer organ function after a transplant. Organs must be shipped as quickly and safely as possible—and a recent test run suggests that drones are a potential answer.

One transplant surgeon’s personal experience at the operating table, waiting for organs to arrive, prompted him to think of new forms of delivery.

“I frequently encounter situations where there’s simply no way to get an organ to me fast enough to do a transplant, and then those life-saving organs do not get transplanted into my patient,” says Dr. Joseph Scalea of the University of Maryland Medical Center. “And that’s frustrating, so I wanted to develop a better system for doing that.”

He organized a group of researchers, including associates at the University of Maryland’s Department of Aerospace Engineering, to explore the feasibility of organ delivery via drone. They chose a DJI M600 Pro for the experiment because its six motors lie directly below their respective rotors, keeping the rotors far away from where a smart cooler containing an organ would dangle. That separation would spare the organ from any heat emitted by the motors.

Next, the team designed a specialized wireless biosensor, called Human Organ Monitoring and Quality Assurance Apparatus for Long-Distance Travel (HOMAL), to measure temperature, barometric pressure, altitude, vibration, and GPS location of the organ while it’s en route. With the drone and wireless biosensor ready, all the researchers needed was an organ to complete the experiment.

Last March, they received news that a kidney—which was not healthy enough to be used in a transplantation—was available for research. Over about 24 hours, the kidney was shipped more than 1,600 miles to Baltimore and the drone was set up for its first delivery mission. Researchers had the results published in November in the IEEE Journal of Translational Engineering in Health and Medicine.

Read more at spectrum.ieee.org