It's no mystery that drone technology is transforming countless industries all over the world. The energy, construction, and agriculture industries are just a few examples of sectors that have been positively impacted by these machines over the last few years.
Drones are remarkably useful tools; they enable work to be done faster, more efficiently, and more safely. In many cases, drones have pushed the limits of what's possible.
One recent example of this kind of technological innovation is organ transportation via drone. Yes, you read that right — drones can be used to transport organs from hospital to hospital. The first successful drone organ delivery redefined the future of organ delivery and created a new frontier for drone technology.
The First Successful Drone Flight Transporting An Organ
In late April, 2019, the first drone organ transport operation was conducted. After waiting eight years for a kidney transplant, the recipient finally had a match.
The kidney was transported from St. Agnes Hospital in Baltimore to the University of Maryland Medical Center. The flight was 2.7 miles, and it took 10 minutes to complete.
This project was spearheaded by Dr. Joseph Scalea. Dr. Scalea had experienced numerous delays in organ transport and he wanted to find a more efficient method. When it comes to organ transplants, time is critical. Dr. Scalea once waited 29 hours for an organ to arrive. With each passing minute, the organ becomes less healthy.
The drone used for the operation had a number of built-in failsafes for redundancy. Redundancy refers to backup components that serve to keep the drone operating in the event of a malfunction. It had backup props, multiple batteries, a backup power distribution board, a parachute system, and a secure harness that kept the payload attached to the drone.
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After reading about this, you likely have a ton of questions. Before we get into some questions, let's preface: due to the fact that this is such a new frontier in terms of drone applications, our answers are not definitive. We're merely using our experience in the drone world to answer some common questions to the best of our ability. Think of these questions and answers as food for thought regarding this new drone industry.
When will drone organ transportation become fully implemented?
This is a particularly difficult question to answer. Our prediction is that this system of organ delivery won't be fully implemented for at least a few more years.
When it comes to the implementation of new technology like this, there's generally a lot of red tape to deal with. We'll list a few of the factors that hinder or determine the speed at which drone organ delivery is implemented:
Public pushback. Much of the public is still spooked by or otherwise uncomfortable with drones in general. As the conversation about drone organ delivery gets more serious, we can expect to get a significant amount of resistance from this crowd.
FAA. This kind of drone program would have to receive special exemptions from the FAA. For example, the FAA would have to grant these hospitals permission to fly at night and over people. The next challenge would be integrating this program with the airspace system. For this system to work best, drones transporting life-saving organs would need to be given priority by air traffic control during transit, just like an ambulance is given the right of way on the road. There's no telling how long it might take the FAA to get these things figured out.
Production of suitable drones. If the FAA is cooperative with this venture, there will likely be strict rules surrounding the drones themselves. All kinds of failsafes will be mandatory. At that point, it's up to drone manufacturers to step up to the plate and create a product that meets the requirements. Then, any number of test trials will be conducted to prove the reliability of the system.
Additionally, this system might not see widespread implementation for much longer if at all. Many hospitals might lack the resources to implement drone organ transportation. At any rate, we can expect for hospitals in big cities to be the first to start implementing this system.
What are the potential hazards of transporting organs by drone? How safe is it?
One of the biggest potential hazards with transporting organs by drone is the possibility of the payload being inadvertently jettisoned. In layman's terms, the organ becoming unattached from the aircraft and plummeting to the ground. This scenario would pose a risk to pedestrians below, and it would surely mean the loss of the organ. Given the fact that most patients wait a number of years to find a viable match, this would be devastating.
The best way to prevent this catastrophe is to simply create a foolproof harness system with even more built-in failsafes that's double and triple checked before each flight. As long as these measures are taken, falling payloads shouldn't be an issue.
Another potential hazard is the drone itself being grounded due to a technological malfunction or external factor. A malfunction with the drone could result in the aircraft falling from the sky and hurting someone, damaging property, and damaging the organ.
The best solution to this potential issue is to create drones with backup components for redundancy. Backup props, motors, and a dual battery system are a great start. A parachute system of some kind would be the most important component. In the event of a malfunction or accident, it would protect people below, property, and the organ.
The weather is another factor that could pose a threat to drone organ transportation. The goal of this method of transport is more timely delivery of the organ. But in strong winds, rain, or other inclement weather, drone flight might not be possible.
One solution to this potential issue is to create larger drones that can withstand strong winds and rain. To make this happen, the drones would need large props and powerful motors that can keep the aircraft stable. A robust GPS system would be an added bonus. This coupled with more capable motors and props would help even more with stability.
Another potential hazard with drone organ transportation is a collision with manned aircraft or other drones in the area. Most hospitals that could utilize this technology are located in big cities. Big cities are generally teeming with all kinds of air traffic, from helicopters to recreational drone operators. For this reason, colliding with other aircraft is a very real possibility.
There are a number of ways to mitigate the risk of a mid-air collision during transport. The best risk mitigation procedure would include the following:
Make a corridor of prohibited airspace between hospitals so that the organ drone transports would be the only aircraft permitted to fly in these corridors.
Equip organ transport drones with flashing lights and a loud siren to alert pilots and other drone operators in the area.
Make a broadcast about the transport operation prior to conducting it on the local air traffic frequency so pilots of manned aircraft know to stay clear of the area.
Do you think that these flights will be flown autonomously, or controlled by a remote pilot?
These flights will definitely be controlled by remote pilots initially. Having a remote pilot control the drone is a great last failsafe in the event of a catastrophic accident. In the event of a serious accident or malfunction, having a skilled operator behind the controls is a good idea. What's more, these flights will be so short and relatively infrequent that it's only logical to have someone control the drone.
But in our view, there's no reason to think that these flights couldn't eventually be autonomous. A simple way that these flights could be autonomous is to create waypoint missions or pre-planned routes to surrounding hospitals. Then, when a transport is needed, simply strap in the payload, select the destination on the list of waypoints, and click “go.”
How far can a drone fly to deliver an organ?
At present, multirotor drones (quadcopters, hexacopters, octocopters, and so on) generally have a limited range. These kinds of drones can fly up to several miles depending on a few factors like battery life and transmission strength. For this reason, these kinds of drones are best suited for relatively close proximity organ transport. The stability that comes with their multirotor system makes these aircraft perfect for relatively short commutes.
However, current fixed-wing drone technology has led to the creation of commercial aircraft that can travel over 100 miles. These drones also have a much longer battery life than multirotor drones. What's more, their top speeds are significantly higher. This technology has enormous potential to have a profound impact on organ delivery by making longer-range deliveries not only possible but convenient.
How is transporting organs by drone more efficient than transporting them in an ambulance or helicopter?
This is certainly a valid question. From a speed standpoint, think of it this way — the fastest route between two points is a straight line. Transporting an organ in a straight line from one hospital to another is much faster than transporting it by road.
Additionally, a transport operation on the road is at the mercy of road conditions and traffic. Many hospitals are situated in congested downtown areas. In these areas, traffic is generally a nightmare. An accident or road closure can significantly prolong the transport. A delayed delivery can be catastrophic for the health of the organ and the recipient.
Let's look at a possible scenario to better understand how drones can expedite organ delivery. Let's say that an organ needs to be transported from Baylor Medical Center in Dallas, Texas across the metroplex to Harris Methodist in Fort Worth. By car, the route is 43 miles, and the straight line distance between the hospitals is approximately 38 miles. If a vehicle averages 70 miles per hour, it'll take 36 minutes to arrive. This is a generous number, as traffic would likely prolong the trip. However, if a fixed-wing drone travels 90 miles per hour in a straight line between both hospitals, it'll arrive in 25 minutes. When it comes to an organ transplant, an 11-minute difference is extremely significant.
In terms of safety and reliability, drone transport is a better option than ground transportation. From a risk perspective, the chances of an accident are much higher on the road in a vehicle than in the air with a drone. This is especially true given the fact that hospitals are generally located in densely populated areas.
Another way that organs can be transported is via helicopter. But this option isn't ideal for transporting organs just a few miles. Scrambling a helicopter isn't nearly as fast as prepping a drone for flight.
Transporting an organ via drone is the best way to bypass traffic, avoid an accident, and take the shortest, fastest route possible.
How expensive would it be to use drones for organ delivery?
Simply put, using drones makes organ delivery much cheaper. The most expensive part of the equation is the drone itself, which could cost tens of thousands of dollars. This might sound like a lot, but it's little compared to the cost of the alternatives.
What's more, drones require little maintenance. The only component that requires somewhat frequent replacement is the props, which are very inexpensive. Other components, like the motors, would need to be replaced occasionally. Still, this option is significantly cheaper than the alternatives of organ transportation via the air.
Compare this to helicopters, one of the alternatives. Helicopters are expensive, and it isn't cheap to maintain them. Then pair that with the costs of paying the pilots and the cost of fuel. The result is an extremely expensive operation for a relatively simple task of transporting an item from point A to point B. The cost of using a drone to do the same job is much lower.
Will this create jobs for drone operators?
There's no reason to believe that this wouldn't create unique job opportunities for drone operators. If drone organ transportation really develops, the entire operation would require a number of personnel at each location. In fact, this program could potentially grow to become its own entity separate from the hospital itself, similar to CareFlite.
In any case, this program seems like it could be a great way for commercial drone pilots to put their skills to work in one of the best ways possible — helping save lives.
With that said, there would no doubt be extensive training involved in addition to the Part 107 requirement for commercial drone operation.