On April 19, 2019, the University of Maryland UAS Test Site Team marked a first: delivery of an organ for a transplant by drone with specially designed monitoring equipment. In honor of the achievement, the Helicopter Association International recognized the team, led by director Matt Scassero, and the University of Maryland Medical Center’s (UMMC) Dr. Joseph Scalea, with the 2021 Golden Hour Award. Part of HAI’s Salute to Excellence program, the Golden Hour award recognizes “the efforts of an individual, group, or organization that, through a particular activity or contributions over time, has advanced the use of helicopters or UAS aircraft in the vital mission of air medical transport.”
The recipient of the transported kidney, 44-year-old nursing assistant Trina Glispy, was in her eighth year of dialysis for kidney failure. HAI said after that lengthy wait “she had begun to lose hope” but “destiny had another plan.”
As she prepped for her kidney transplant surgery at the University of Maryland Medical Center, she was offered the opportunity to accept an organ delivered by drone, a mode of transport that would speed the transport and a medical first. She agreed to the delivery option.
Led by Scassero and Scalea, the UAS team l worked with the Living Legacy Foundation, Maryland’s organ procurement organization, on the receipt of the organ, and saw to its transport with real-time monitoring equipment.
“The drone flew 2.8 miles in 9.52 minutes at 300 feet to the rooftop helipad at UMMC, faster than a car could have made the trip in Baltimore traffic,” HAI said. “It landed smoothly with all organ-monitor readings in the green.”
That short voyage was 2.5 years in the making, the association said. After the UAS team had used a drone to carry medical equipment across the Chesapeake Bay, Scalea approached Scassero about missions involving an organ. Scassero’s team took on that challenge and built a drone with multiple redundancies, including a parachute system that could be deployed either automatically or manually to protect the organ.
The team also designed the real-time organ-monitoring system, which can record and upload temperature, pressure, and vibrations to the cloud for live monitoring.
“Nothing like this had ever been developed before,” Scassero said. “Currently, an organ is tested after harvest and then tested again after arrival to ensure it is still viable. With our monitoring system, we discovered the kidney we flew remained well within the parameters; I’d even say better than it would have in a car or helicopter.” Glispy, meanwhile, recovered from her surgery and returned to many of her former activities.
The team partnered with an investor and has founded MissionGO to develop and expand the use of the technology.