On the 19th of April, a custom-made drone lifted off from southwestern Baltimore in the USA and airlifted a human kidney to a nearby hospital where a surgical team successfully transplanted the organ into a critically ill patient.

The 4.5km, 10-minute drone flight was the first of its kind in the world — and is unlikely to be the last. Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are have been used to deliver medical supplies to Rwanda and other African countries, and experts predict organ-delivering medical drones will take off in the United States (excuse the pun!).

“Organ drones have the potential to improve access to transplants, decrease costs and improve quality,” Joseph R. Scalea, a transplant surgeon at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and the leader of the team behind the proof-of-concept flight, told NBC News.

The night time drone flight was the result of a three-year collaboration among doctors, researchers, engineers and aviation experts at the University of Maryland Medical Center and the Living Legacy Foundation of Maryland, a Baltimore-based organisation that oversees organ procurement.

For the best chance of saving lives, organs must be transplanted as quickly as possible after they are removed from donors’ bodies, but organs can’t be transplanted until they’re transported to where they’re needed. The usual methods of transporting organs, which include motor vehicles, helicopters and airplanes, have significant limitations. Drone delivery could cut the time organs spend in transit by 70%, Scalea added.

The drone used for the flight isn’t the sort flown by hobbyists. “In addition to a pair of nested boxes to hold an organ, the eight-rotor drone carries sophisticated communications gear and backup batteries and powertrains to make sure it stays aloft even if some components fail. There’s also a parachute — so the drone and its life-saving cargo can reach the ground safely in the event of a major malfunction”.

“Many obstacles need to be overcome before drone delivery becomes a regular occurrence however. Drones compete with airplanes and helicopters in the nation’s already busy airspace, and federal regulations generally prohibit flights beyond the operator’s line of sight — sensible regulations given the state of drone technology”.

Original Article & Images: NBC News Mach