About two months ago, in the middle of the night, a small, specially designed unmanned aircraft system — a drone — carried a precious cargo at 300 feet altitude and 22 miles per hour from West Baltimore to the University of Maryland Medical Center downtown, a trip of about 5 minutes. They called it, “One small hop for a drone; one major leap for medicine.”
The cargo was a human kidney, and waiting for that kidney at the hospital was a patient whose life would be changed for the better.
“This whole thing is amazing,” the 44-year-old recipient later told the University of Maryland engineering and medical teams that designed the drone and the smart container. The angel flight followed more than two years of research, development and testing by the Maryland aerospace and medical teams and close coordination with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
There were many other ways the kidney could have been delivered to the hospital, but proving that it could be done by drone sets the stage for longer and longer flights that will ultimately lower the cost and speed up the time it takes to deliver an organ. And speed is life in this case — the experts say the length of time it takes to move an organ by traditional means is a major issue today.
This is one example of how small drones are already changing the landscape of our economy and society. Our job at the Department of Transportation (DOT), through the FAA, is to safely integrate these vehicles into the National Airspace System.
Time is of the essence. The Department has been registering drones for less than four years and already there are four times as many drones — 1.5 million — on the books as manned aircraft. This week in Baltimore, more than 1,000 members of the drone community are coming together to discuss the latest issues in this fast-growing sector as part of the fourth annual FAA UAS Symposium, which the Department co-hosts with the Association for Unmanned Aircraft Systems.
Along with public outreach, the Department is also involved in demonstration projects, including the Integration Pilot Program, or IPP. Created by this administration in 2017, the IPP allows the FAA to work with state, local and tribal governments across the U.S. to get the experience needed to develop the regulations, policy and guidance for safely integrating drones, including tackling tough topics like security and privacy. The experience gained and the data collected will help ensure the United States remains the global leader in safe UAS integration and fully realizes the economic and societal benefits of this technology.
A couple of IPP examples show the ingenuity of the drone community.
In San Diego, the Chula Vista Police Department and CAPE, a private UAS teleoperations company, are using drones as first responders to potentially save the lives of officers and make the department more efficient. Since October, they have launched drone first responders on more than 400 calls, in which 59 arrests were made; for half of those calls, the drone was first on the scene with an average on-scene response time of 100 seconds. Equally important is the 60 times that having the drone there first eliminated the need to send officers at all.
Recently, as the result of an IPP project, the FAA granted the first airline certification to Alphabet Inc.’s Wing Aviation, a commercial drone operator that will deliver packages in rural Blacksburg, Va.
What happens next is that the FAA will gradually implement new rules to expand when and how those operators can conduct their business safely and securely. To manage all the expected traffic, the FAA is working with NASA and industry on a highly automated UAS Traffic Management, or UTM, concept.
At the end of the day, drones will help communities like Baltimore — and others throughout the country — save lives and deliver new services. DOT and the FAA will help ensure it’s all done safely, and that public concerns about privacy and security are addressed.