Heaven sent: EHang plans to deliver artificial organs by drone
If EHang's vision for personal pilotless aircraft wasn't quite wild enough for you, then get a load of the drone-maker's latest idea. After wowing CES attendees with a prototype of a single-passenger drone this year, the Chinese company has now teamed up with a biotechnology firm to adapt the vehicle for emergency organ deliveries.
The idea of using drones to deliver urgent medical supplies has rightly garnered quite a bit of interest. Last year Australian startup Flirtey took off on the first FAA-approved drone delivery, bringing medication to a clinic in rural Virginia. Another startup, Matternet, has also been chipping away at this problem for years, while similar projects are underway in Syria and Rwanda.
But ferrying packages of drugs with small quadcopters is one thing, carrying artificial organs in what is essentially an un-piloted helicopter is another. As the EHang's 184 drone is designed to autonomously carry an entire human from one location to another within 10 mi (16 km), you might think that carrying just one part of a human would make for light work. But while EHang has a video showing the drone in flight, we are yet to see it actually lift a human passenger in a full demonstration.
Regardless, the company has shown enough for Maryland-based public benefit corporation (PBC) Lung Biotechnology to enlist its services. The partnership will see the pair work together over the next 15 years to build a modified EHang 184 for the purpose of carrying out automated organ deliveries.
They are calling the program the Manufactured Organ Transport Helicopter (MOTH) system and it will involve the purchase of up to 1,000 vehicles. These would be stationed outside Lung Biotechnology's manufacturing facilities, waiting to transport freshly produced organs along preprogrammed flight paths to hospitals in the area.
These purchases will be dependent on not only whether the MOTH aircraft is approved by the Federal Aviation Administration, but also whether the US Food and Drug Administration approves Lung Biotechnology's artificial organs. And herein lies the major hurdle.
While scientists have made promising strides in the area recently, implantable artificial organs remain out of reach for the moment. With a view to addressing organ shortages, scientists in 2014 grew a fully-functioning organ inside a mouse from scratch. Earlier this year, researchers made progress in developing engineered liver tissue. 3D printing, too, is helping nudge these efforts along.
For its part, Lung Biotechnology is working to offer artificial lungs and other transplantable organs through both pig-to-human xenotransplantation and work with stem cells, among other technologies.
So on one hand, neither of the required technologies for this initiative have been proven, and that's to say nothing of the lengthy regulatory approval process before they are eventually declared safe for use. But on the other hand, drone deliveries and artificial organs are problems that legions of very smart people are working on all around the world. So the idea that they one day become a reality somewhere, and then combine to save many thousands of lives, is perhaps not so far-fetched.