How Drones Can Help Transport Human Organs

Dec 17, 2018

A University of Maryland transplant surgeon is encouraged by successful tests showing a kidney can be transported by drone. More tests are planned for 2019.

Dr. Joe Scalea has been getting increasingly frustrated with the difficulty of transporting organs for transplant. "In a time when cars can drive themselves it just seems so crazy that I can't get a lifesaving organ to my patient in the appropriate amount of time. I just don't accept that."

Even though more than 35,000 organs were transplanted in 2017, countless others were lost before they could be donated. Part of the problem is transportation. Nurses act as glorified travel agents. Using helicopters and planes can be expensive, and Dr. Scalea explains the method is "information poor."

He has teamed with the Director of University of Maryland UAS (unmanned aerial system) Test Site Matt Scassero.

"We're kind of developing it as we go because it doesn't exist right now," Scassero says. "This kind of thing exactly, in the form that we're going to be doing it in the future, doesn't exist yet."

During 14 flights in and around Baltimore on March 22, 2018, using an organ that was healthy but not good enough for transplant, they proved using drones can work.

Scalea took a video:

"We have a series of biosensors and we have a series of IT platforms both for hand-held telephones and for desktop computers that allow the user or the surgeon to both see the location and the status of that organ during transplantation," explains Scalea.

The new technology shows where the organ is and how it's doing.
Credit Courtesy of Joe Scalea

Scassero says there are a variety of issues that they have to work out with the FAA. One of them is permission to fly beyond the line of sight. Right now, drone operators can only fly with visual line of sight, or an unobstructed path between the UAV and the controller.

Other questions surround how much cargo the drone/uas can haul and how far it can go.

More tests are planned. Dr. Scalea refuses to predict when the University of Maryland and others will be able to regularly transport organs by drone.

"I think we are several years away, not because the technologies aren't here, but because we need to be thoughtful," he says. "We want to be measured. We want to understand the human impact of what we're doing."

There's an FAA UAS symposium in Baltimore in February and the Scalea and Scassero may be giving a presentation about their efforts.