(CNN) - For the first time, a drone delivered a donated kidney that was then successfully transplanted into a patient, University of Maryland Medical Center said last week. Unmanned aircraft delivery could soon become the fastest, safest and least expensive method for beating the organ transplant clock, the drone developers say.
The unmanned aviation system was developed by physicians, researchers and aviation and engineering experts from the University of Maryland School of Medicine, the University of Maryland and the Living Legacy Foundation of Maryland, a nonprofit that facilitates organ and tissue donation and transplantation.
"This whole thing is amazing," the patient, a 44-year-old woman from Baltimore who had spent eight years on dialysis before undergoing the transplant procedure, said in a news release. "Years ago, this was not something that you would think about."
The faster an organ is transplanted, the better it works. The flight delivering the organ to the transplant team at the Baltimore-based hospital took about 5 minutes. Yet the delivery of an organ from a donor to a patient has many moving parts. One of the most crucial and complex steps in the organ transplant process, then, is transportation. Typically, donor organs are delivered by either chartered or commercial flights. Sometimes, busy air traffic causes delays, while occasionally, an organ is left on a plane.
Roughly 1.5% of donor organ shipments did not make it to their intended destination, and nearly 4% had an unanticipated delay of two or more hours, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing, which manages the organ transplant system in the United States. There were nearly 114,000 people on waiting lists for organ transplant in 2018.
The history-making delivery was preceded by test flights that transported saline, blood tubes and other medical materials and then by transporting a healthy, but nonviable, human kidney. The effort included a number of technological firsts, including a specially designed high-tech apparatus for maintaining and monitoring a viable human organ and a custom-built unmanned aircraft system.
"We built in a lot of redundancies, because we want to do everything possible to protect the payload," said Anthony Pucciarella, director of operations at the test site. Safeguards included backup propellers and motors, dual batteries, a backup power distribution board and a parachute recovery system, in case the entire aircraft fails.
"As astonishing as this breakthrough is from a purely engineering point of view, there's a larger purpose at stake. It's ultimately not about the technology; it's about enhancing human life," said Darryll J. Pines, dean of the University of Maryland's A. James Clark School of Engineering. He believes the new technology has the potential to help widen the donor organ pool and provide greater access to transplantation.
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