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University of Maryland Successfully Delivers Transplant Organ by Drone

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

University of Maryland’s School of Medicine and Engineering First to Use Unmanned Aircraft to Complete Successful Kidney Transplant

New Technology Could Help Expand Donor Access to Transplantation

In a first-ever advancement in human medicine and aviation technology, a University of Maryland unmanned aircraft delivered a donor kidney to surgeons at the University of Maryland Medical Center for successful transplantation into a patient with kidney failure. Transplant physicians and researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM) and the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore joined aviation and engineering experts at the Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Test Site, part of the A. James Clark School of Engineering at the University of Maryland, College Park to complete this landmark flight.

The research was also done in collaboration with The Living Legacy Foundation of Maryland (The LLF), a non-profit organ procurement organization. This transport system may speed up organ delivery times, expand access to more organs, enhance safety and ultimately improve patient outcomes.

“As a result of the outstanding collaboration among surgeons, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), engineers, organ procurement specialists, pilots, nurses and, ultimately, the patient, we were able to make a pioneering breakthrough in transplantation,” said Joseph Scalea, MD, Assistant Professor of Surgery at UMSOM, who is the project leader and one of the surgeons who performed the transplant at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore.

Prior to this transplant, Dr. Scalea’s team was the first ever to test the drone system by transporting saline, blood tubes and other materials between the launch site and the hospital helipad. Dr. Scalea also noted that the flight took place in an urban environment, over a densely-populated area. “This was a complex process.  We were successful because of the dedication of all of the people involved over a long period of time,” he said.

The patient, Trina Glispy, 44, of Baltimore, was discharged from UMMC on Wednesday after a successful transplant procedure. “This whole thing is amazing. Years ago, this was not something that you would think about,” said Ms. Glipssy, who has been on dialysis since 2011.

“For more than 25 years, the University of Maryland Medical Center has provided cutting-edge care in organ transplantation,” said Mohan Suntha, MD, MBA,  The Marlene & Stewart Greenebaum Professor in Radiation Oncology and President and CEO of the University of Maryland Medical Center. “Our transplant program cares for patients who come from our local community, the state and the nation, many of whom have been turned away at other hospitals, because we have the skill, talent and knowledge to advance even the most complex transplant cases, often times not just improving but saving lives.”

Transportation logistics are often the most complicated part of the organ transplant process, typically involving expensive chartered flights, or relying on the variability of commercial flight schedules, and occasionally resulting in an organ left on a plane, or delays that destroy the organ’s viability, according to Dr. Scalea.

"There remains a woeful disparity between the number of recipients on the organ transplant waiting list and the total number of transplantable organs. This new technology has the potential to help widen the donor organ pool and access to transplantation,” Dr. Scalea said. “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.”

According to 2018 data from the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), which manages the organ transplant system in the United States:


  • Nearly 114,000 people were on waiting lists for an organ transplant;
  • 36,500 transplants were performed;
  • Nearly 30,000 organs came from deceased donors;
  • Despite the successes, about 1.5 percent of deceased donor organ shipments did not make it to the intended destination;
  • Nearly four percent of shipments experienced an unanticipated delay of two or more hours.

The researchers theorized that unmanned aircraft technology could help solve some of the transport issues by potentially eliminating many of the human hand-offs and reducing the chance of mishaps.

Challenges in Current Organ Delivery System
“When we started this project, I quickly realized there were a number of unmet needs in organ transport,” said Dr. Scalea.  “For example, there is currently no way to track an organ’s location and health while in transit. Even in the modern era, human organs are unmonitored during flight.  I found this to be unacceptable. Real-time organ monitoring is mission-critical to this experience,” he added.

The project also required building a custom unmanned aircraft specifically designed to transport an organ. The aircraft, which was built by UAS test site engineers, needed to meet the rigid medical, technical and regulatory demands of carrying an unaccompanied deceased donor organ for human transplant.

Organ Tracking and UAS Design
For organ tracking, Dr. Scalea partnered with several medical technology companies to develop the Human Organ Monitoring and Quality Assurance Apparatus for Long-Distance Travel (HOMAL; patent pending).

The HOMAL, designed expressly for this project, measures temperature, barometric pressure, altitude, vibration and location via global positioning system during transportation. These are all important parameters for an Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) flight that would not have the benefit of a manned aircraft’s pressurized cabin. The parameters from this device are then sent directly to the smart phone of transplant personnel in order to better understand the organ’s location and status.

“UAS had to address multiple challenges,” said Matthew Scassero, MPA, Director of the UAS Test Site and Co-Principal Investigator of the research. “For example, we had to create something that was still within the regulatory structure of the FAA, but can carry more weight, for a longer distance.

The aircraft prototype used for this test has several safeguards. Anthony Pucciarella, MBA, Director of Operations at the UAS Test Site, said it is fitted with backup propellers, backup motors, dual batteries, a backup power distribution board and, if the entire aircraft fails, a parachute recovery system. “We always say ‘we want to do no harm.’ So, we have built a number of redundancies, because we want to do everything possible to protect the payload,” said Mr. Pucciarella.

In another precaution taken during this test flight, the Baltimore Police Department blocked ground traffic briefly along the flight path, while the aircraft flew overhead. The aircraft followed an automated course at a height of 400 feet. Pilots were in radio contact with each other and maintained a visual line of sight throughout the entire 8.5-minute flight.

Beating the Clock
Beating the organ transplant clock is a key responsibility of organ procurement organizations throughout the U.S., including The Living Legacy Foundation of Maryland. “We are very time sensitive.  We need to be able to work with helicopter services, charter flight services and ground transportation to make sure to get our teams to a donor case and make the gifted organ available to a recipient,” said Charlie Alexander, Chief Executive Officer of The LLF.

“The University of Maryland organ transport project is incredibly important,” Mr.Alexander said, noting the work is at the proof-of-concept stage. “If we can prove that this works, then we can look at much greater distances of unmanned organ transport. This would minimize the need for multiple pilots and flight time and address safety issues we have in our field.”

The researchers agreed that amid all the challenges of organ transplantation, improving the logistics of delivering organs is a critical area where experts can speed up innovation.

“As leaders in solid organ transplantation, we continue to explore innovative approaches to improving patient outcomes in this area, said E. Albert Reece, MD, PhD, MBA, Executive Vice President for Medical Affairs, UM Baltimore, and the John Z. and Akiko K. Bowers Distinguished Professor and Dean, University of Maryland School of Medicine. “Dr. Scalea’s pioneering research using unmanned aircraft technology is a major step forward in reducing the amount of time it takes in the organ transport process.”

Dr. Scalea is founder of a private data analytics company, Transplant Logistics and Informatics. Funding for this research was provided by the Maryland Technology Development Corporation (TEDCO) with additional resources from the UAS Test Site, UMSOM, UMMC, the University of Maryland, Baltimore, Office of Technology Transfer, and the City of Baltimore


Scalea et al. Am J Transplant. 2019 Mar;19(3):962-964
Scalea et al. IEEE J Transl Eng Health Med. 2018 Nov 6;6:4000107

About the University of Maryland School of Medicine
Now in its third century, the University of Maryland School of Medicine was chartered in 1807 as the first public medical school in the United States. It continues today as one of the fastest growing, top-tier biomedical research enterprises in the world -- with 43 academic departments, centers, institutes, and programs; and a faculty of more than 3,000 physicians, scientists, and allied health professionals, including members of the National Academy of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences, and a distinguished recipient of the Albert E. Lasker Award in Medical Research.  With an operating budget of more than $1 billion, the School of Medicine works closely in partnership with the University of Maryland Medical Center and Medical System to provide research-intensive, academic and clinically-based care for more than 1.2 million patients each year. The School of Medicine faculty, which ranks as the 8th highest among public medical schools in research productivity, is an innovator in translational medicine, with 600 active patents and 24 start-up companies. The School works locally, nationally, and globally, with research and treatment facilities in 36 countries around the world. Visit

About the University of Maryland Medical Center
The University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC) is comprised of two hospitals in Baltimore: an 800-bed teaching hospital – the flagship institution of the 14-hospital University of Maryland Medical System (UMMS) – and a 200-bed community teaching hospital, UMMC Midtown Campus. UMMC is a national and regional referral center for trauma, cancer care, neurosciences, cardiac care, diabetes and endocrinology, women’s and children’s health, and has one of the largest solid organ transplant programs in the country. All physicians on staff at the flagship hospital are faculty physicians of the University of Maryland School of Medicine. At UMMC Midtown Campus, faculty physicians work alongside community physicians to provide patients with the highest quality care. UMMC Midtown Campus was founded in 1881 and is located one mile away from the University Campus hospital. For more information, visit

About the University of Maryland UAS Test Site
The Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site at the University of Maryland stands at the forefront of UAS rulemaking, commercialization, and national airspace integration. Formed in 2014, test site experts leverage their approximately 150 years of combined experience in military and civilian aviation, engineering, and project management to accelerate the safe, responsible application of UAS in public and private industries. The test site is one of only a handful of institutions across the country that work directly with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to advance UAS research and demonstrate operational capabilities, with the ultimate objective of seamlessly integrating UAS into national airspace. This collaboration, along with our expertise in operational procedures, empowers the Test Site to shape rules and industry standards related to UAS technology. The University of Maryland UAS Test Site is a leading research and operations facility led by experts in military and civilian aviation, engineering, and project management. Test site experts leverage decades of experience and cutting-edge technology to accelerate the safe, responsible application of UAS in public and private industries. It is part of the A. James Clark School of Engineering at the University of Maryland.

About The Living Legacy Foundation of Maryland
The Living Legacy Foundation of Maryland (The LLF)  is a non-profit organization who saves and enhances lives through organ, eye, and tissue donation and transplantation. We are federally designated to serve the state of Maryland with the exception of Charles, Montgomery, and Prince George’s counties. The LLF offer family support, provide education to the public, and are passionate about our mission of saving and enhancing lives.

Read more about this historic flight in the following publications: