Commercial drones have become extremely popular and useful in recent times, with the industry worth set to top 58 billion dollars by 2026, according to Trusted SourceWorldwide - commercial drone market size | Statista The global commercial drone market is projected to reach the size of around 58.4 billion U.S. dollars in 2026. The market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of over 16 percent between 2021 and 2026. www.statista.com . The industry has seen a lot of groundbreaking stories and firsts, but none quite as interesting and quite mind-blowing as this one.
At the end of September 2021, a lung transplant was delivered by drone between Western Hospital in Toronto to Toronto General Hospital. It took six minutes, and the drone covered a distance of a little less than a mile.
There are multiple uses for commercial drones across the world, but this particular story of lungs being delivered for transplant by a drone is the kind of content you would expect in sci-fi movies, not in real life. It is the first time it has been done successfully and paves the way for some truly innovative uses for drone technology.
The drone used for the lung transplant delivery was created especially for this unique task. It was made by UHN (University Health Network), the company that owns both hospitals involved, and Quebec-based aviation experts Unither Bioelectronique as a special custom-built project just for this very special job, which is the first of its kind in the world.
Unither Bioelectronic are world leaders in this kind of technology, creating techniques such as pig-to-human transplant methods, 3D bioprinting, and eco-friendly transport options for transplants. Their eventual wish is not only to transport the organs using drones but to have a hand in manufacturing the organs using innovative technology, forming a complete transplant system.
This particular drone had to have a unique navigation system setup for the delivery as well as safety features so that it couldn’t hurt anybody below in the case of a crash. One of those features was a ballistic parachute designed to deploy if the drone suffered an engine failure or other issues. The parachute would soften the landing, ensuring a lower risk to anybody on the ground below.
In the end, it took over 53 test flights for the special drone to be approved for its essential lung transplant journey.
The drone itself was perfectly designed for the job at hand, but the lungs, an incredibly fragile item, had to be specially prepared for this vital journey. They were filled with oxygen and stored inside a box that kept them at the exact right temperature for transportation.
Once they were packed and flown, Dr. Shaf Keshavjee – head of the Toronto Lung Transplant Program at UHN – was there to meet the incoming delivery. The project originally stemmed from his innovative thinking around transplant delivery solutions. He felt frustrated at the use of huge vehicles like helicopters and planes, which not only presented an issue with logistics but seemed wasteful and unnecessary considering the light two KG weight of the package contents.
Aside from enormous pride at the success of the delivery, Dr. Keshavjee also had a lot of additional pressure on top of the lungs getting to him on time. His receipt of the lungs also preceded his main job that day – transplanting the two lungs into the donor.
The recipient of the lungs was Alain Hodak, who was with his daughter at the time he was told there were lungs available to help him. He had been suffering from pulmonary fibrosis for two years and found breathing unbearable, hence his need for a new set of lungs. Pulmonary Fibrosis is a painful lung condition that Trusted SourcePulmonary Fibrosis: Definition and Patient Education | Healthline Pulmonary fibrosis is a condition that causes lung scarring and stiffness. www.healthline.com is familial in about 3-20% of cases. It can also be caused by environmental, lifestyle, or health factors, and according to Trusted SourceTypes, Causes and Risk Factors of Pulmonary Fibrosis | American Lung Association Some cases of PF are caused by autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, scleroderma or Sjogren’s syndrome. www.lung.org , can often be down to an unknown cause.
The patient was also told that moving forward because of his deteriorating lung condition, and he would need new lungs to stay alive. Such was the urgency that he moved to a condo in Toronto with his wife, so they were close enough to the hospital should a donor set of lungs become available.
At the time he was told the fantastic news that he would have the chance to receive a transplant, he was also informed about the drone project by Dr. Keshavjee. As an engineer by trade and an avid fan of new technology, he was excited to be part of the project as a guinea pig for this groundbreaking delivery method.
The drone lung delivery and the work of Dr. Keshavjee ensured a successful double lung transplant, and Mr. Hodak’s life was saved that day.
The drone industry as a whole is a multi-billion dollar sector that has a place in the future of transplant deliveries. So far, kidneys, pancreas, and corneas have been delivered by drone, enabling them to get where they need to be on time and with minimal impact on the environment. There is a lot of work still to be done to streamline and scale transplant deliveries, but this kind of success story shows that the future of drones used for medical deliveries certainly does look promising.