USA team awarded for safely delivering an organ by drone
A research team at the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC) in the USA has been rewarded for trusting a drone to deliver an organ for a patient who had waited eight long years for it.
Led by the University of Maryland UAS Test Site (UMD) Director Matt Scassero and UMMC transplant surgeon Joseph Scalea, the team was on Tuesday named as virtual recipients of the 2021 Helicopter Association International’s (HAI) Golden Hour Award; a gong that recognises the efforts of an individual, a group, or organisation that, through a particular activity or contributions over time, has advanced the use of helicopters or autonomous aircraft in the vital mission of air medical transport.
The UMD UAS Test Site, part of the aerospace engineering department at the A. James Clark School of Engineering, is a research and operational facility, with a mission of advancing the safe, reliable application of UAS technology in private industry as well as the public sector.
Their finest hour came nearly two years ago on the night of April 19 in 2019, when news filtered through that Trina Glispy, a 44-year-old nursing assistant in Baltimore – who had been waiting for a new kidney to replace her own failing organs for eight years – had finally found a match. After relaying the good news, doctors immediately began preparing her for the transplant, which turned out to have a little more significance than just saving the life of Glispy – the kidney was being kept safe four-and-half or so kilometres away at the Living Legacy Foundation, Maryland’s organ procurement organisation.
The doctors could of course just load the kidney into an ambulance and set it loose in the Baltimore traffic jungle where it would be stuck with no reliable estimated time of arrival.
Or they could pack up Glipsy’s life saver in a special kind of transport that they had been working on since 2017. A drone.
Scalea had approached Scassero and UMD aerospace engineering chair Norman Wereley in 2017, after the former had learnt about a fixed-wing drone test the UMD team had just successfully conducted; carrying medical equipment across the Chesapeake Bay.
Scalea wanted to know if the same could be done for organ transportation. Frustrated by slow pace of commercial flights and high cost of charters, the doctor had began exploring faster alternative means of delivering kidneys, livers and other organs that can quickly deteriorate.
“This new technology has the potential to help widen the donor organ pool and access to transplantation,” Scalea said at the time. “Delivering an organ from a donor to a patient is a sacred duty with many moving parts. It is critical that we find ways of doing this better.”
Of course, a lot of things needed to be prepared right first for the concept to work, but he UMD Test Site team embraced the challenge. Based on a concept developed by Scalea, Scassero and Wereley, a special organ delivery drone was built from scratch with multiple redundancies and fail-safe mechanisms; all the way down to a parachute system that could be deployed either automatically or manually to protect the organ.
The team also designed the first-ever organ-monitoring system, which tracks the state of the organ in transport in real time — recording and uploading temperature, pressure, and vibrations to the cloud for live monitoring. What’s more, upon landing, medical staff can remove the onboard SD memory card to review the same data.
Fast forward two years later, and Scalea stood in front of Glipsy and asked if she wanted to make history as the first ever patient to have her organ transported to the hospital by a drone.
Of course, by the time 2017 rolled and the UMD started developing their special autonomous vehicle, the concept of medical delivery drones had been in the lexicon for some time. Zipline had already saved a little girl’s life when it transported the blood she needed to escape the fatal effects of a virulent malaria disease that had had her breathing through tubes in Rwanda.
But then, that was just blood. It was not an organ, with special needs and no margins at all for error; because just imagine how long Glipsy had waited for that kidney, and now she learned they were going to deliver it to her using a kind of transport she had never heard of before.
But she agreed nevertheless.
And everything that had been at a standstill started happening at once.
“Nothing like this had ever been developed before,” Scassero says. “Currently, an organ is tested after harvest and then tested again after arrival to ensure it is still viable. With our monitoring system, we discovered the kidney we flew remained well within the parameters; I’d even say better than it would have in a car or helicopter. The hope is, one day this monitoring technology will replace the need for that second biopsy.”
As Glispy prepared for the surgery, UMD UAS Test Site pilots and engineers awaited the arrival of the kidney from the Living Legacy Foundation, from where it was carefully packaged before being loaded in the custom-made drone, complete with real-time monitoring equipment; and off it went.
The drone flew 4.5 kilometres at a height of just over ninety metres above ground in 9.52 minutes to the rooftop helipad at UMMC – way faster than the fifteen or twenty minutes a car could have made the taken, depending on the Baltimore traffic at the time. It landed smoothly with all organ-monitor readings still in the green.
The kidney was soon on its way to the operating room where Glispy waited.
Glispy is doing very well and has returned to many of her normal activities, and since then, the drone technology that lent a hand to her recovery has also flourished. Members of the original team partnered with an investor to found MissionGO, a company that is developing and expanding this technology and increasing organ donation efficiency through a new software product.
Besides, now they have an award to show for their hard work.