CLEVELAND-- Organ transplants could soon reach new heights in Northeast Ohio.
Lifebanc plans to take part in tests of unmanned drones for organ transport.
“If we can speed up the transportation process and a drone's able to do that, we can get an organ from point A to point B a lot faster, and get more people transplanted,” said Lifebanc CEO Gordon Bowen.
Bowen said 1,900 people in Northeast Ohio are currently waiting for an organ. At the same time, some organs are discarded because they don’t make it to a recipient in time. There’s a four-hour time limit to transplant a heart or lung.
Drone technology could move organs from donor to recipient faster and cover more ground. Bowen said it would also be less costly than transporting via jet.
“I think a drone can cut through traffic jams, it can cut through a lot of the issues we have, and it's a cost-effective opportunity for us,” Bowen said.
Software startup Vyrtx is working on technology to operate the drones, which are currently in the prototype phase. Alice Cummings, with Vyrtx, said the Class 3 drones will resemble helicopters with pilot controls replaced by autonomous technology. The drones will also carry equipment needed to sustain organs.
She said Vyrtx is currently taking part in cellular testing to allow drones to be controlled remotely via a cellular signal, instead of a satellite signal.
“What we want is to build something that is like an existing aircraft now, but with an autonomous component so it can be dispatched on demand anytime,” Cummings said.
Vyrtx is also working with government regulators to develop a medical corridor for drones to travel along, like highways in the sky.
“We're targeting the I-71 corridor to connect Columbus to the Cleveland area, so it would hopefully expand. Hopefully grow like a highway system would do. You have to drive a car on a road, therefore you have to fly a plane on a corridor,” Cummings said. “
Cummings said testing could begin this fall with regular flights still a year or two away.
“For us, every minute counts,” Bowen said. “Twenty-two people die every day because an organ's not available, and that's a travesty.”
The drone program still needs federal and state approval, though Vyrtx said it has received support from ODOT and state leaders.
For more information on registering as an organ, eye and tissue donor, visit www.lifebanc.org/morelife.