In a potentially monumental medical breakthrough, an unmanned drone from the University of Maryland delivered a live organ to surgeons for transplant for the first time ever. The organ, a donor kidney sent to doctors at the University of Maryland Medical Center, was successfully transplanted into a a 44-year-old woman’s body.
The entire trip was under three miles, a distance deemed short enough for all teams involved to feel confident that the drone could carry the kidney. Doctors and scientists hope the delivery will lead to even more groundbreaking missions.
“This major advance in human medicine and transplantation exemplifies two key components of our mission: innovation and collaboration,” said E. Albert Reece, the Dean of University of Maryland School of Medicine in a press statement. “Innovation is at the heart of our focus on accelerating the pace and scope of discovery, where research can rapidly transform medicine.”
Trina Glispy, the nursing assistant who was on dialysis for eight years prior to the procedure, was grateful for both the doctors and drone that delivered her kidney.
“This whole thing is amazing,” Glispy said in a press statement. “Years ago, this was not something that you would think about.” Speaking to the New York Times, Glispy said, “I feel very fortunate, especially after watching so many people pass being on dialysis. I’m seeing a lot of people die and I’m like, ‘It’s taking so long, it might not happen for me either.’”
With eight rotors and multiple powertrains to establish consistency and reliability, even in the event of partial failure, the drone was specially designed for organ delivery. Protective redundancies were a priority during construction, including backup propellers and motors, dual batteries, a backup power distribution board, and a parachute recovery system in case of a total system failure.
“This history-making flight not only represents a breakthrough from a technological point of view, but provides an exemplary demonstration of how engineering expertise and ingenuity ultimately serve human needs—in this case, the need to improve the reliability and efficiency of organ delivery to hospitals conducting transplant surgery,” Darryll J. Pines, Ph.D., Dean of Maryland’s A. James Clark School of Engineering, said in the press statement.
Operators used a wireless mesh network to control the drone and monitor its status on its journey. The network also provided communications for teams both sending and receiving the drone.
“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,” said Matthew Scassero, MPA, director of UMD’s UAS Test Site, part of the A. James Clark School of Engineering, in another press statement.
“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,” Scassero said.
The project required “collaboration among surgeons, engineers, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), organ procurement specialists, pilots, nurses, and, ultimately, the patient,” said Joseph Scalea, M.D., assistant professor of surgery at UMSOM, project lead, and one of the surgeons who performed the transplant at UMMC.
Scalea was one of the chief architects of the project, having grown frustrated by the long transportation times for organs. For most organs, there’s a time window of 12 to 36 hours in which they can be useful for donation before expiring. This window can result in dramatic measures being taking to the patient in time, including the chartering of private jets. For patients in rural areas, a lack of resources can often further complicate this matter logistically.
“As astonishing as this breakthrough is from a purely engineering point of view, there’s a larger purpose at stake,” Dr. Pines said. “It’s ultimately not about the technology; it’s about enhancing human life.”
Source University of Maryland
Originally published on Popular Mechanics