My late brother Mark was a transplant surgeon. He told me how sometimes he'd be woken up in the middle of the night to fly to a nearby city to retrieve, say, a kidney, from someone who had just died (frequently in a motorcycle crash), then carry the organ on a plane to another city where he'd install the kidney into a waiting patient, and then fly back home. (He felt it important to personally retrieve the organ that he'd then be transplanting.) I thought of that process while reading about the first drone delivery of a donated kidney that resulted in a successful transplant for a 40-year-old woman who had been on dialysis for 8 years. The drone delivery system was designed by researchers from the University of Maryland and organ donation nonprofit the Living Legacy Foundation of Maryland. The kidney only traveled three miles but was a major step forward. From the New York Times:
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 his patients. After organs are removed from a donor, they become less healthy with each passing second. He recalled one case when a kidney from Alabama took 29 hours to reach his hospital.
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 it using a wireless network, and were prepared to override the automated flight plan in case of emergency. The drone also had built-in devices to measure temperature, barometric pressure and vibrations, among other indicators.
Dr. Scalea called the flight “proof of concept that this broken system can be innovated.”