Drone Deliveries to Fuel On-demand Services for Food, Basic Goods and Organs

February 13, 2019 by Michael Cheng
Dr. Joseph Scalea, a transplant surgeon and University of Maryland professor, right, holds a prototype organ monitoring device as he discusses using drones to deliver organs with Stephen Restaino, a senior research engineer at the Maryland Development Center, left. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun Media Group/TNS)

Commercial airline services are great for traveling. Planes are also suitable for transporting large cargo over long distances. But what about time-sensitive and on-demand products, such as food, perishable items and organs?

Drone deliveries could be the solution to such challenges. At the moment, transporting fragile items, including organs, is inconvenient and ridiculously expensive because businesses are forced to utilize charters, couriers and airline services unfit for moving time-sensitive goods.

Surprisingly, an organ charter to transport a liver from Baltimore to Texas can cost up to $80,000. Considering organ transplants exceed 30,000 per year in the US, quadcopters could make deliveries more affordable, as well as speed up the service by a whopping 70 percent.

“I did a transplant where the organ flew 1,500 miles from Alabama on a commercial aircraft and it took 29 hours,” said Dr. Joseph Scalea, a transplant surgeon from the University of Maryland Medical Center.

“That’s ridiculous. It could have been here in six. And yet that’s accepted as how we do things.”

Scalea is one of many doctors pushing for organ drone deliveries. To protect the payload, the transplant surgeon and his team encase organs in a cardboard cooler. Compact sensors around the container carefully monitor the status of the organ in real-time. For now, Scalea is still in the process of refining transport methods, with focus on maintaining the quality of organs during flight.

Drone deliveries have the potential to impact a plethora of fast-moving sectors that rely on timely and last-mile delivery services. Tech giants capable of influencing the development of quadcopters, including Amazon and Google, are currently testing drone deliveries to support online services. A newly published patent by Amazon (USP 10198955) suggests quadcopters could be used to drop off packages directly to the homes of customers in the future.

Additionally, in New Zealand, Domino’s shook up the pizza industry when it delivered mouth-watering pies via drones to Whangaparaoa locals. On the other side of the world, Chipotle conducted a similar trial with burritos.

From a regulatory perspective, governments across the globe are preparing guidelines designed to promote safety during flight. In the US, limitations surrounding quadcopters are stringent, with restrictions on flights Beyond the Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS). The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) also regulates nighttime flights, which require a waiver, traveling speed, authorized airspaces and registration.

In countries where drone regulations are lax, businesses are starting to recognize the benefits of quadcopter-based deliveries. For instance, transport services powered by unmanned aircrafts are effective in far-flung locations with limited mobility options. Companies that operate in remote sites, such as mining projects and large-scale farming, may also use drones to maintain fuel supply for industrial fleets.

“With the world still struggling to immunize the hardest to reach children, drone technologies can be a game changer for bridging that last mile to reach every child,” highlighted Henrietta Fore, executive director at UNICEF.

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