EHang 184 - Flickr

If you thought that drones could be used as a new way to deliver organ transplants, then you are thinking along the same lines as Lung Biotechnology. This month Lung Biotechnology has agreed to partner with aerial technology company EHang Holdings Limited to develop and purchase up to 1,000 units of the world’s first autonomous drone for humans (EHang’s 184 drone) to automate organ transplant delivery. The two companies have agreed to work together over the course of the next fifteen years to optimize the rotorcraft for organ deliveries, a program which they are calling the Manufactured Organ Transport Helicopter (MOTH) system.

Lung Biotechnology specializes in manufacturing lungs and other organs for transplant using a variety of technologies, including pig-to-human xenotransplantation, as well as regenerating them from stem cells. It plans to station the MOTH rotorcrafts outside of its organ manufacturing facilities. The rotorcrafts would use preprogrammed flight plans to hospitals and re-charging pads within the MOTH radius so that the manufactured organs can be delivered within their window of viability.

Currently, organ transplants are limited by the number of donors, which results in thousands of potential recipients passing away each year. In the case of lung transplants, only 2,000 lung procedures are performed annually, whereas over 200,000 people in the U.S. die of end-stage lung disease during this time period. The prospect of manufactured lungs could eliminate this numerical limit, and delivering them autonomously via the all-electric MOTH technology is expected to save the healthcare system millions of dollars with a dramatically reduced carbon footprint. MOTH purchases by Lung Biotechnology will be contingent upon successful development and U.S. Federal Aviation Administration approval of the MOTH rotorcraft, as well as approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration of Lung Biotechnology’s xenotransplantation organ products.

“The well-known locations of transplant hospitals and future organ manufacturing facilities makes the EHang technology ideal for Highway-In-The-Sky (HITS) and Low-Level IFR Route (LLIR) programs,” said Martine Rothblatt, Ph.D., Chairman and CEO of Lung Biotechnology. “We anticipate delivering hundreds of organs a day, which means that the MOTH system will help save not only tens of thousands of lives, but also many millions of gallons of aviation transport gasoline annually.”

The rotorcraft Ehang and Lung Biotechnology are working on isn’t a pipe dream. Autonomous rotorcraft are one of the most promising avenues for delivering critical supplies in congested urban areas or disaster zones. The MOTH rotorcraft is an autonomous drone capable of carrying a passenger more than 10 miles through the air at speeds up to 65 miles per hour by entering a destination into its accompanying smartphone app.

According to The Verge, drones have been in testing over the last few years to speed the delivery of critical medicine and supplies. A test flight to a medical clinic in West Virginia marked the first FAA-approved instance of drone delivery in the US, and Airbus has partnered with LocalMotors to crowdsource the design of a next generation medical drone. Matternet, another drone delivery startup, has been airdropping medicine and supplies for a few years.

Since drones are already being tested for the delivery of medicine and supplies, drone delivery of organ transplants seems like a potential next step. Nonetheless, there are a few hurdles to overcome. First the drones need to be built and then the legalities need to be worked out so that they can be used.


Ryan Lahti is the founder and managing principal of OrgLeader, LLC. Stay up to date on Ryan’s STEM-based organization tweets here: @ryanlahti

(Photo: EHang 184, Flickr)