A subsidiary of United Therapeutics ($UTHR) has placed an order for up to 1,000 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) from Chinese manufacturer EHang. The plan is to use the UAVs, flying vehicles more commonly known as drones, to ship manufactured lungs and other organs from production facilities to hospitals for transplantation.
Many stumbling blocks stand between the United Therapeutics subsidiary, Lung Biotechnology PBC, and the realization of this vision, but the company has seen enough potential to justify committing time and resources to the idea. Lung Biotechnology plans to spend 15 years working to turn the idea into reality with EHang, a Chinese drone developer that unveiled a prototype of an autonomous helicopter in January. The partners plan to rework that prototype, which was designed to carry one passenger, to ferry organs between locations without the active control of a human.
Lung Biotechnology thinks the drone is a good fit for its vision of the future of organ transplantation. “The well-known locations of transplant hospitals and future organ manufacturing facilities makes the EHang technology ideal for Highway-In-The-Sky and Low-Level IFR Route programs," CEO Martine Rothblatt said in a statement. “We anticipate delivering hundreds of organs a day, which means that the [Manufactured Organ Transport Helicopter] system will help save not only tens of thousands of lives, but also many millions of gallons of aviation transport gasoline annually.”
The partners will have to overcome a diverse range of technical and regulatory challenges if they are to implement a system that even vaguely resembles Rothblatt’s vision. One set of challenges relates to the drone technology. In January, EHang said the personal pilotless helicopter had completed a flight in China, but the video footage presented to date has relied heavily on computer renderings. As it stands, the manned version of the drone is designed to fly for up to 10 miles. EHang is aiming to have a version of the personal transport vehicle available for sale later this year.
If EHang and Lung Biotechnology can work through the engineering obstacles, they will still need to get clearance from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) before they start putting the crafts into the sky. Lung Biotechnology has its own separate set of challenges. The company is working to make pig lungs suitable for transplantation into humans, but the concept has yet to be tested in clinical trials, let alone secure FDA approval. Lung Biotechnology’s order of up to 1,000 drones is contingent on it and its partner winning this mix of regulatory approvals. The 15-year timeframe for the alliance shows both companies know none of this will happen quickly.
On the drone side, at least, the work will be supported by a broader move toward UAV delivery. Last year, the FAA approved a drone delivery for the first time. The drone carried medical supplies to a rural clinic. And with the likes of Amazon ($AMZN) pushing to run drone test flights, the sector as a whole has the sort of lobbying clout that is beyond the means of EHang and Lung Biotechnology.