Someday, medical supply deliveries by autonomous vehicles may become commonplace, but today it’s still a big deal. Various agencies and teams have already demonstrated that drones — the common term for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) — can deliver blood, emergency medical supplies, and even telehealth video equipment so a doctor in a hospital can direct first responders at a disaster site.

Doctors at the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC) and the University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM) worked with engineers from the A. James Clark School of Engineering at the University of Maryland, College Park to deliver a donor kidney to surgeons via a drone. The recipient was a patient with kidney failure, and the transplant procedure was a success. This proof-of-concept research project, with a real donor kidney and patient, was supported by The Living Legacy Foundation of Maryland, a non-profit organization that secures donor organs for patients awaiting transplants.

Joseph Scalea, MD, UMSOM assistant professor of surgery, described the delivery as a “pioneering breakthrough in transplantation.” The drone flew 2.8 miles in 9.52 minutes (an average speed of about 17 mph overall) to make the delivery on April 19, 2019. The flight occurred over a heavily-populated urban area in Baltimore. In order to make the flight, the researchers built a drone that met strict medical, technical, and regulatory requirements to carry a deceased donor organ to a living recipient.

The UMMC/UMSOM mission involved one organ for one transplant over a relatively short distance, but the significance of the successful voyage was a testimony for the innovation and collaboration required. The aviation, medical, engineering, and FAA personnel involved in the collaboration lay stepping stones for those to follow. Further development of drone transport systems has the potential to speed organ delivery, expand organ access, and improve patient outcomes.