At a Southern Maryland airfield, Dr. Joseph Scalea watched a drone carrying a kidney in a cardboard cooler fly 3 miles.
The test flight, repeated 14 times, was the culmination of three years’ work by the University of Maryland Medical Center transplant surgeon, who sees the unmanned aircraft as the ultimate method for delivering life-saving organs from donors to recipients.
“I did a transplant where the organ flew 1,500 miles from Alabama on a commercial aircraft and it took 29 hours,” Scalea said. “That’s ridiculous. It could have been here in six. And yet that’s accepted as how we do things.”
Organs don’t last long outside the body, and delays and mistakes mean some lose quality or can’t be transplanted. Scalea is frustrated that the system relies on couriers, commercial airline schedules and costly charter flights arranged by local nonprofit agencies. He cited a recent $80,000 charter to deliver a liver to Baltimore from Texas and an unrelated case in which a heart was accidentally left on a commercial plane flying from Seattle.