Updated: Feb 24
On April 19th, a custom-made drone made a 2.8 mile (5 km), 10-minute flight to deliver a human kidney to the University of Maryland Medical Centre, where it was successfully transplanted to a 44-year old patient. This night-time drone flight culminated from a three-year collaboration among doctors, researchers, engineers and aviation experts at the University of Maryland, the University of Maryland Medical Center and the Living Legacy Foundation of Maryland, a Baltimore-based organization that oversees organ procurement in the state. The team’s leader Dr. Joseph R. Scalea, an assistant professor of surgery at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said he pursued the project after constant frustration over organs taking too long to reach patients. After organs are removed from a donor, they become less healthy with each passing second. The drone used in this month’s test had backup propellers and motors, dual batteries and a parachute recovery system to guard against catastrophe if one component encountered a problem 400 feet in the air. Two pilots on the ground monitored the flight using a wireless network and were prepared to override the automated flight plan in case of an emergency. The drone had flown for over 700 hours in 44 test flights before this journey. The exercise allowed the team to overcome logistical and regulatory hurdles involved in transporting a viable organ, and it will now focus on flying “farther and faster”.