A kidney for renal transplant was delivered by drone for the first time ever

Have you heard of a renal transplant in which the donated organ was delivered by a drone? What was considered by many as an annoyance is now being used to save human lives.

For the first time ever, a kidney scheduled for transplant was successfully delivered by drone, said the University of Maryland Medical Center last week.

This breakthrough will pave the way for unmanned aircraft delivery to become the custom in the time-sensitive organ transportation, as it could be the fastest, safest, and least expensive method currently available today.

drone used to deliver donated kidney
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The drone is customized to monitor the organ in the air real time and to send updates to the personnel handling the transplant. The organ was delivered on April 19 from a hospital three miles away from the University of Maryland Medical Center. The transport took a mere 10 minutes, and the organ was then successfully transplanted to its recipient, a 44-year-old woman from Baltimore who had been going through dialysis treatments for eight years.

“This whole thing is amazing. Years ago, this was not something that you would think about,” the patient said.

The developers of the unmanned aviation system included physicians, researchers, and aviation and engineering experts from the University of Maryland School of Medicine, the University of Maryland, and the Living Legacy Foundation of Maryland.

Organs can survive for only a few hours outside the body, which is why delivery speed is crucial. In 2018, there were nearly 114,000 people on the wait list for organ transplant, and about 4% experienced an unanticipated delay of two or more hours, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing, the organization that manages the organ transplant system in the country.

Usually, donor organs are transported via chartered or commercial flights. At times, busy air traffic would cause delays, and worse, organs are occasionally left on a plane.

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Prior to the April 19 delivery, the drone underwent test flights that successfully transported saline, blood tubes, and other medical materials. Lastly, it transported a healthy, but non-viable, kidney. A high-tech apparatus for maintaining and monitoring the human organ was also installed in the unmanned aircraft system.

Anthony Pucciarella, director of operations at the test site, said:

“We built in a lot of redundancies, because we want to do everything possible to protect the payload.”

Backup propellers, motors, dual batteries, a backup power distribution board were included as safeguards. A parachute recovery system was also installed in the instance that the entire aircraft fails.

Doctors believe that the use of drones for organ delivery – in this case a renal transplant – could make them more available as compared with the traditional methods of organ transport that we have today.

Dr. Joseph Scalea
National Kidney Foundation | Dr. Joseph Scalea

Dr. Joseph Scalea, the doctor who performed the renal transplant, said:

“There remains a woeful disparity between the number of recipients on the organ transplant waiting list and the total number of transplantable organs. This new technology has the potential to help widen the donor organ pool and access to transplantation.”

Darryll J. Pines, dean of University of Maryland’s A. James Clark School of Engineering, echoed this statement. He said:

“As astonishing as this breakthrough is from a purely engineering point of view, there’s a larger purpose at stake. It’s ultimately not about the technology; it’s about enhancing human life.”

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The use of drones has been widely observed in the recent years as several industries have incorporated it into their services. Hopefully, it will be the standard from now on when it comes to organ transportation, as it could literally save a person’s life.

Check out the video below to learn more about the newly-adapted technology in the organ transport realm.