On 19 April, University of Maryland’s School of Medicine (UMSOM), Medical Center (UMMC) and A. James Clark School of Engineering, had succeeded for the first time, to use an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) in the delivery of a donor’s kidney to surgeons for transplantation. 

The specially designed drone employed in the attempt had completed a 2.8 miles journey in an urban environment. Prior to this, the research team, led by Dr. Joseph Scalea, Assistant Professor of Surgery at UMSOM had completed several other pioneer transportations involving saline and blood tubes. 

In the UMMC press release, Dr. Joseph Scalea said the collaborations between physicians, engineers, organ procurement specialists, pilots, nurses, and the patient, had made the complex process possible. He also highlighted, “the transport system may speed up organ delivery times, expanding access to more organs, enhance safety and ultimately improve patient outcomes”.

Present challenges 

At the moment, logistics and costs had posed great challenges to organ transportation. Reliance on chartered flights means donor organs are succumbed to commercial flight schedules and risk losing its viability due to prolong idling. Based on the figures given by the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), as of 2018, there are nearly 114.000 people on the waiting lists for an organ transplant but only 35,600 transplants were performed. 

Thus, researchers from the University of Maryland hope that the use of drones will make the whole transportation process more efficient and reduce the chances of a possible mishap due to human error. To achieve that, the UAS used in this mission was custom-made with eight rotors and many powertrains, to ensure a consistent and reliable performance throughout the journey. 

Shall one of the components fails during the flight, the wireless mesh network will inform the ground crew. The research team had also partnered technology companies to create a Human Organ Monitoring and Quality Assurance Apparatus for Long-Distance Travel (HOMAL), to monitor temperature, barometric pressure, altitude and other vital parameters via global positioning system during the transportation. 

In other areas 

This is not the first time an UAS had successfully assisted medical professionals to deliver life-saving resources. Last year, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) had vaccines delivered commercially by drone in a remote South Pacific island country of Vanuatu. The drone traveled near 40 kilometers of mountainous regions. 13 children and five pregnant women became the first in the World to receive drone-delivered vaccine. 

Local health professionals believe the use of drones will facilitate their national immunization program. Vaccines, which had limited shelf life, will no longer have to be transported manually in ice boxes through rivers, mountains or rocky ledges to local communities without electricity and health centre. 

Likewise, as early as 2016, the Rwandan government had teamed up with Zipline, a medical drone manufacturing company, to deliver medical supplies to five of the local hospitals. Within a year of the collaboration, the company has already expanded the program to almost half of the country’s 45 hospitals with up to 150 deliveries made every day. Drone deliveries had shortened an average four-hour long emergency delivery to 15 minutes. 

In Ghana, the first regional drone hub has just opened last month as part of the effort to integrate UAS into their healthcare system. The Ghanaian government will now be paying for a subscription fee for emergency deliveries. The local healthcare professionals believe the service will be a lifeline for their communities. 

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Hazel Tang

A science writer with data background and an interest in current affair, culture and arts; a no-med from an (almost) all-med family. Follow on Twitter.