A Baltimore woman is now the proud owner of a kidney like no other: it was the first organ to be delivered for transplant via drone and then successfully implanted.
The donated kidney, held in a special cooler, was flown via a custom drone with eight rotors from a location in West Baltimore a few miles to the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC). There, it was implanted in a 44-year-old woman who had spent the previous eight years on dialysis.
"This whole thing is amazing," the patient, who did not disclose her name, said in a statement. "Years ago, this was not something that you would think about."
The flight, which only lasted about 10 minutes, was intended as a demonstration of the custom unmanned aerial system (UAS). Teams from UMMC had, but this appears to be the first time one has actually been implanted after a flight.
"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," said Matthew Scassero, director of the University of Maryland's UAS test site.
The project was led by Joseph Scalea, one of the surgeons who performed the transplant. He hopes UAS can help to streamline the system of getting organs to patients who need them quickly.
"This is a complicated web of couriers and expensive charter flights, which, in my opinion, could be avoided."
Scalea says using drones to shave up to a few hours off the delivery time of organs could mean that up to 2,500 more such organs become viable for implantation.
Nearly 114,000 people were on waiting lists for an organ transplant in 2018, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing, which manages the organ transplant system in the US. Over 36,000 transplants were performed in 2018 in the US.
There's still more research to be done to ensure that flying through the air in a box is a safe mode of transport for all organs, and systems also need to be put in place to manage this whole new class of critical deliveries. But eventually, kidneys and other body parts could be zipping through the air to save lives on a daily basis.
That is, so long as vultures and other birds of prey don't get wise to what's in those slow-flying containers.