Using regular aircraft to transport organs for transplant usually works OK, but problems can arise when flights are delayed, or when planes can't land in remote areas. That's where drones could really make a difference – and in an April 19th proof-of-concept exercise, one was used to deliver a kidney for a human recipient.

The multicopter drone in question was custom-built by engineers at the University of Maryland, and was used to autonomously fly a human kidney 2.8 miles (4.5 km) from a southwest Baltimore location to a waiting surgical team at the university's Medical Center. After the organ was removed from the aircraft, it was successfully transplanted into a 44 year-old female patient.

While in flight, the kidney was kept in a sealed cargo compartment known as the HOMAL (Human Organ Monitoring and Quality Assurance Apparatus for Long-Distance Travel). That box – pictured below – measured and maintained its own internal temperature, plus it tracked factors such as the barometric pressure, altitude, amount of vibration, and GPS coordinates. All of that data was continuously transmitted to the surgical team's smartphones, so they could ensure that the organ was on its way, and that it remained viable.

The aircraft itself has eight motors and propellers, distributed in pairs on four arms – this setup allows it to keep flying even if one or more motors should fail. Other failsafe measures include dual battery packs, a backup power distribution board, and a parachute that deploys if the drone simply cannot remain airborne.

Additionally, an onboard camera streams real-time video to two ground-based operators, who can take manual remote-control if needed via a wireless mesh network. The whole system adheres to US drone-flight regulations.

"As a result of the outstanding collaboration among surgeons, engineers, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), organ procurement specialists, pilots, nurses, and, ultimately, the patient, we were able to make a pioneering breakthrough in transplantation," says project leader Joseph Scalea, MD, assistant professor of surgery at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. "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."

You can see some of the highlights of the flight, in the video below.

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