At CES this year, the Chinese drone maker Ehang showed off a prototype of its 184, an oversized drone that can carry a human passenger for up to 10 miles, with no pilot required. It was an exciting idea, but the company didn't show a working version on the floor, and the video it shared was more computer renderings than actual footage of the craft in flight. We gave it our coveted aware for best vaporware. Now it has an even crazier plan: to built a network of drones that will save lives by delivering freshly grown pig organs to human patients in need of a transplant.
Like its announcement at CES, this news is long on exciting details and short on actual working product. Ehang says it has signed a deal to build 1,000 autonomous rotorcraft that would deliver transplant organs across a network of hospitals and medical facilities. The client is Lung Biotechnology — a subsidiary of United Theraputics, a multi-billion dollar biopharmaceutical firm — which says it "plans to station the MOTH rotorcrafts outside of its organ manufacturing facilities, and use preprogrammed flight plans to hospitals and re-charging pads within the MOTH radius so that the manufactured organs can be delivered within their post-production window of viability."
Aerial robots zipping across a city saving lives with freshly grown pig hearts is a wild vision for the future, but right now its still very much just a dream. The deal calls for the purchase of 1,000 aircraft over the next 15 years, and is "contingent upon successful development and U.S. Federal Aviation Administration approval of the MOTH rotorcraft, as well as approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration of Lung Biotechnology’s xenotransplantation organ products." In other words, none of this stuff is built or legal yet.
Drones delivery of medical supplies is a hot topic
The possibilities for drones to speed the delivery of critical medicine and supplies has attracted a lot of attention in the last few years. A test flight to a medical clinic in West Virginia marked the first FAA-approved instance of drone delivery in the US, and Airbus has partnered with LocalMotors to crowdsource the design of a next generation medical drone. Matternet, another drone delivery startup, has been airdropping medicine and supplies for a few years.
What Ehang and Lung Biotechnology are working toward, at least on the drone side of things, isn't fantasy. Autonomous rotorcraft are one of the most promising avenues for delivering critical supplies in congested urban areas or disaster zones. Are these the two companies that are going to pull it off safely and at scale? I'll believe it when pigs fly. Or at least, pig parts.