Medical Drones Put to Work Delivering Transplant Organs, COVID-19 Vaccines

MissionGo’s flagship drone sets a new distance record and gets FAA type certification, ushering in a new era of possibilities for using drones in healthcare for delivering organs, pharmaceuticals, and COVID-19 vaccines. 


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Image credit: MissionGo

Delivery drones -- better known in the industry as unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) – are moving closer to commercial viability, thanks to some recent test flights involving transportation of donated organs as well as some new Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) designations that start to clarify drones' uncertain regulatory status.

UAS maker MissionGo partnered with the Nevada Donor Network and pulled off two different deliveries: corneas, which were carried a couple of miles; and kidneys, which had a 10-mile journey across the desert, which the company says is a new distance record.

"Given that the majority of organs donated in Las Vegas must currently be shipped to recipients in other states due to limited transplant programs available locally, MissionGo’s flight tests underlined an exciting possibility for the future of organ transportation," the Nevada Donor Network says in a statement. 

The Nevada Donor Network adds that drone deliveries of transplant tissue may be able to:

  • Reduce the time between organ donation and transplantation
  • Reduce the carbon footprint by using electric aircraft
  • Potentially expand organ procurement efficiency, saving more lives.

Sensors, Ready for Takeoff

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are piloted remotely and don't require a human onboard to fly, MissionGo explains. In contrast, autonomous drones, a kind of UAV, aren't piloted remotely by humans. Instead, they use an onboard autopilot, computer and sensor suite and handle takeoff, flight and landing by themselves. 

Technology for consumer-level drones that are remotely piloted is different than for commercial ones; some consumer drones use encryption on the control links, upstream and down. Whether consumer or commercial, drones handling deliveries of something substantial must have both sufficient flight time for the drone as well as range of coverage to manage communication and control of the drone.

"The challenge is matching the capabilities of the various drone platforms with the work they're trying to get done," says Eric Hanselman, principal research analyst for 451 Research, now part of S&P Global Market Intelligence. Transporting five or six pounds over 10 miles is do-able today with remotely piloted drones, including all the security protection needed. But advanced security is no longer confined to just the sophisticated drones, according to Hanselman. "Integration of encryption and security is table stakes for the industry," he says.

More Drones Collecting More IoT Data

In separate but related news, the FAA approved the airworthiness of MissionGo's MG Velos 100 unit, which is one aspect of every drone's type certificate application. The certification, coupled with MissionGo’s expected production and Part 135 certificates, will enable MissionGo to fly more conventional routes through airspace, over people, and eventually beyond visual line of sight. 

The drone manufacturer says in a statement that flights containing critically important cargo, such as human organs en route to transplant patients, will be faster and more efficient. The company adds that fewer handoffs between donor and recipient benefits everyone in the equation.

MissionGo and other drone vendors may also be carving out a niche within the Internet of Things market with its developing technology, according to 451's Hanselman. "IoT is about integration and aggregation of data, and drones throw off a significant amount of data--they also observe their environment," he says, which makes them well suited for smart cities' initiatives.

"Much of what smart cities are expected to be is updated information and drones could be part of that – that street light is on, that car is parked here," he explains. "The incidental aspect of the data that the drones collect makes them attractive."

Blue drone carrying white carton for delivery with mountains in background

Image credit: MissionGo

Autonomous Drone Delivery 

While delivery-by-drone headlines have been dominated largely by Amazon and Walmart, there are others testing out proof-of-concept ideas that go beyond retail delivery. Google Wings was testing semi-autonomous delivery a few years ago in Australia; the routing was automated, but a pilot was monitoring the drone and could step in, if necessary. Upon arrival, the units would drop payloads from a tether. 

As Hanselman notes, delivery drones weren't designed to land like a helicopter or space ship. "The challenge with drones is landing or recovering," he adds.

Another company, Zipline, provides autonomous drone delivery of medical supplies in Africa. Once the unit reaches its destination, it launches the payload, which falls by parachute to the ground. But payload size and weight, not to mention distance and weather hardiness will determine drone choice and features. Zipline and other drone makers have also played a role in cold chain COVID-19 vaccine delivery in less developed regions, including Nigeria’s Kaduna state.




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