Drone Delivers Human Kidney for Successful Transplant in Maryland

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A University of Maryland (UMD) unmanned aircraft system (UAS) recently delivered a donor kidney to surgeons at the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC) in Baltimore for successful transplantation into a patient with kidney failure.

The flight, led by UMD’s UAS Test Site in St. Mary’s County, commenced at 1:00 a.m. on April 19. The vehicle, which traveled 2.6 miles, flew for approximately 10 minutes. The human kidney was successfully delivered to UMMC and was scheduled for transplant surgery at 5:00 a.m.

“This whole thing is amazing. Years ago, this was not something that you would think about,” says the kidney recipient, a 44-year-old Baltimore resident who spent eight years on dialysis before undergoing the transplant procedure. The patient was discharged from UMMC on Tuesday.

Joseph Scalea, assistant professor of surgery at UMSOM, project lead and one of the surgeons who performed the transplant at UMMC, says, “As a result of the outstanding collaboration among surgeons, engineers, the Federal Aviation Administration, organ procurement specialists, pilots, nurses, and, ultimately, the patient, we were able to make a pioneering breakthrough in transplantation.”

Other project partners included AiRXOS, part of GE Aviation; transplant physicians and researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM) in Baltimore; and collaborators at the Living Legacy Foundation of Maryland (LLF).

“The University of Maryland UAS project is incredibly important,” says Charlie Alexander, CEO of The LLF, who notes that the work is at the proof-of-concept stage. “If we can prove that this works, then we can look at much greater distances of unmanned organ transport. This would minimize the need for multiple pilots and flight time and address safety issues we have in our field.”

The drone flight was monitored by AiRXOS’ Air Mobility platform, which manages the volume, density and variety of unmanned traffic data while coordinating and integrating that data within a secure, FAA-compliant, gated cloud environment to ensure safe operations.

“AiRXOS is honored to have taken part in this landmark moment in medical and aviation history,” says Ken Stewart, CEO of AiRXOS. “This flight demonstrated how air mobility can transform the delivery of medical care in ways that can have significant impact on lives. It lays the foundation for future advanced drone operations. AIRXOS is privileged to have worked closely with the UMD team in helping perform this historic flight.”

Other technology included a specially designed apparatus for maintaining and monitoring a viable human organ and a custom-built UAS with eight rotors and multiple powertrains to ensure consistently reliable performance, even in the case of a possible component failure.

“We had to create a new system that was still within the regulatory structure of the FAA, but also capable of carrying the additional weight of the organ, cameras, and organ tracking, communications and safety systems over an urban, densely populated area – for a longer distance and with more endurance,” explains Matthew Scassero, director of UMD’s UAS Test Site. “There’s a tremendous amount of pressure knowing there’s a person waiting for that organ, but it’s also a special privilege to be a part of this critical mission.”

Prior to the flight, the Maryland partners worked together to develop and test the drone by first successfully transporting saline, blood tubes and other materials and then by transporting a healthy, but nonviable, human kidney. These test flights were preceded in 2016 by the state of Maryland’s first civil unmanned aircraft delivery of simulated medical cargo, a collaborative effort between UMD’s UAS Test Site and the University of Maryland Shore Regional Health to illustrate how the use of UAS could radically change medical care.

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

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