Drone deliveries have taken off around the world. Companies like Google’s Wing have already launched commercial drone delivery services. Apart from the commercial aspect, drone deliveries can be a boon to the medical industry. In October 2021, a drone flew a distance of 1.5 km across downtown Toronto carrying a pair of lungs. While not the first, this drone organ delivery was one of a kind.
The Drone Organ Delivery
Delivering organs through roadways is time-consuming while opting for a manned aerial transit is expensive. Thus, drones are perfect for medical deliveries. A company called Matternet has been successfully testing out drone deliveries of medical samples in Switzerland and the USA. Therefore, this delivery marks the first organ delivery using a drone in Canada.
The drone flew a distance of 1.5 km from Western Hospital to Toronto General Hospital. The trip took just about six minutes. This delivery was part of a trial conducted by Unither Bioélectronique, a Quebec-based biotechnology aviation company, and UHN (University Health Network). A custom-built 15.5 kg carbon fiber drone carried a specialized cooling box containing the lungs.
The organ delivery mission was organized by Dr. Shaf Keshavjee, head of the Toronto Lung Transplant Program at UHN. He was also the doctor who performed the double lung transplant surgery. “We’ve used planes and helicopters and cars and vans, and oftentimes there’s a challenge in logistics. But it seems not right to use a whole Learjet to transport something that weighs only two kilograms,” he stated.
The recipient was a 63-year old engineer who was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis in 2019. The patient is an engineer and was thrilled at the idea of a drone organ delivery.
Mission Planning Behind the Delivery
Extensive mission planning and trials were conducted prior to execution. Downtown Toronto is an extremely busy area. This means an array of logistical challenges even for a short distance of 1.5 km. Several approvals had to be taken from regulatory authorities like Nav Canada and Health Canada before carrying out the delivery.
Before the actual delivery, the team carried out 53 test flights. Every single factor was taken into consideration to mitigate any risks associated with the flight. Dr. Keshavjee stated that contingency measures were built into the drone. The drone was equipped with a ballistic parachute system. Hence, if any of the engines failed or the drone spiraled out of control, the parachute would deploy and land the drone safely to the ground.
The Future of Medical Drone Deliveries
The first-ever organ delivery using a drone took place on April 19, 2019. A drone that was developed by the Research and Development group at the University of Maryland Medical Centre carried a kidney to surgeons 5 km away at a medical center. The delivery took only 10 minutes.
Since the first delivery, two more organ deliveries were conducted in 2020 using drones. The Canadian delivery is the fourth organ delivery and the first lung delivery using drones. Through this mission, it has been made clear that conducting drone deliveries in a busy area like downtown Toronto is possible. Thus, this project has laid the foundation for future organ deliveries. Using a network of drones and the right storage conditions, organs could be transported to far greater distances in a fraction of the time.