Drones carrying human organs for transplants could be flying over the Twin Cities as soon as this fall as part of an experiment to see whether they can save crucial minutes.
The LifeSource organ procurement agency for Minnesota and the Dakotas was selected for the second phase of a study after an initial drone flight in Baltimore was successful. “We will do one of these real-time soon,” said Susan Gunderson, LifeSource chief executive.
The first attempt last April involved a drone flight carrying a donor kidney from St. Agnes Hospital in Baltimore to the University of Maryland Medical Center, which was 2.6 miles away. The drone made the trip in 10 minutes, approximately half the time of a drive in traffic, and the organ was transplanted into a 44-year-old woman with kidney failure who had been on the transplant waiting list for eight years.
MissionGO, the company creating the drone delivery technology, added LifeSource as well as organ procurement organizations in Boston and Las Vegas for the next round of test flights. LifeSource is interested for starters in using the technology to delivery donor kidneys and tissues that are needed for time-sensitive procedures.
While the Federal Aviation Administration has been hesitant to allocate airspace for commercial drone deliveries, Gunderson said the agency has been supportive of this form of rapid transportation for donor organs.
LifeSource seeks to have kidneys transplanted within 36 hours of their removal from deceased donors. That timetable includes matching the kidneys to transplant recipients and getting those recipients to hospitals. So there is often little time to spare to transport the organs.
LifeSource estimates its first flight could come this fall, and like the Baltimore flight would probably be less than 3 miles to a transplant center. Eventually, flights could carry organs as far as Rochester, Duluth or Fargo.
Pilots at each end of the initial test flight will have control of the drone and monitor it to make sure its cargo is staying cold and isn’t being damaged by in-flight vibrations or changes in barometric pressure, LifeSource officials said. The drone will likely have backup batteries and propellers, as well as a parachute system for emergency landings.
No transplant recipient has been selected yet for the study.