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Biotech firm wants to deliver organs using a passenger drone

Engadget Engadget 4/05/2016 Steve Dent
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Do you remember the EHang "delivery drone for humans" from CES 2016? The company is still around, and has cranked up the level of hype with a new deal. It will develop and produce 1,000 copies of the drone for Lung Biotechnology PBC, a company that wants to manufacture lungs and other artificial organs. The biotech firm plans to station Ehang's drone, which will be re-purposed as the "Manufactured Organ Transport Helicopter (MOTH)," outside its facility. Then, it will transport artificial organs to needy patients at hospitals, according to the news release.

As a reminder, the EHang 184 drone is designed to carry a single person up to 10 miles at 65 miles per hour, "simply by entering a destination into its accompanying smartphone app." For the new partnership, it would be re-purposed to carry organs, which Lung Biotechnology plans to manufacture using either pig-to-human xenotransplantation or stem-cell regeneration. The craft would fly pre-programmed flight plans to charging pad-equipped hospitals within the MOTH's 10 mile delivery radius.

The idea of a smartphone controlled drone that transports xenotransplanted organs sounds like tech nirvana, and a noble cause, to boot. "Currently, organ transplants are limited by the number of brain-dead donors, which results in thousands of deaths on organ transplant waiting lists each year," says the PR. However, this organ transplant network in the sky has some serious regulatory and physical realities to hurdle.

Let's start with the artificial organs: They don't exist yet. Lung Biotechnology is a legitimate firm with $700 million yearly sales that has invested a lot of money in transplantation-ready pig organs and teamed with Craig Venter, one of the first scientists to crack the human genome. Nevertheless, nobody has reported research that could lead to artificial organs anytime soon. And when they do, the US Food and Drug Administration will have to sign off on them, a process that could also take years -- so transportation is the least of its problems.

The other issue is the drone itself. As far as we can tell, it's never test-flown its intended human-carrying mission, and we've only seen one short video (above) of the craft in flight at all. Even if EHang has made huge strides in developing the $200-$300,000 craft, there are massive regulatory hurdles. A drone that size would have to be certified by the FAA, a process that can be costly and time-consuming, especially for an unknown entity like a drone. Finally, the FAA is considering rules that would completely ban heavy drones from flying over people, which pretty much kills the organ delivery business plan.

Lung Biotechnology thinks the idea is feasible, though, through the use of upcoming US air traffic programs. "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," says company CEO Martine Rothblatt. However, the long-delayed HITS program still hasn't launched, and may not be fully operational until 2025.

Still, it's a fun idea that marries several types of emerging tech into one fantastical vision. EHang and Lung Biotechnology have signed a 15 year deal, so they are looking far down the road. However, given the limitations of the tech and regulations, it might not be long enough.

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