On September 11, a drone ferrying 12 kg of medicines and 20 vials of vaccines over 6 kms in five minutes to a primary health centre in the Telangana’s Vikarabad district marked the first step in a paradigm shift in health delivery. It was the first ever public service drone to set off on the Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLoS), that is over a distance of 500 metres, to deliver medicines.
This is a first of its kind initiative by the government of Telangana, done in partnership with the World Economic Forum, NITI Aayog and HealthNet Global of the Apollo Hospitals group. “For this, we have a well-established emerging technology corridor with a separate policy for drones in place,” says K.T. Rama Rao, Telangana’s major industries and information technology minister. “Telangana has always acted as a test bed for innovative solutions to support scaling across the nation.”
The September 11 drone trip signified the launch of the state’s unique ‘Medicine from the Sky’ project being taken up on a pilot basis in 16 green zones in the state and which is to be scaled up to the national level after analysing the data for three months. Also, on the same day, two other drones were tested in Vikarabad district—ferrying 5 kgs over 5 km and then back. They carried a thermometer to measure the temperature inside the box as maintaining low temperatures are vital for vaccines and medicines. The three drones were developed by the Hepicopter, comprising Marut Dronetech and Public Health Foundation of India, Blue Dart Med Express, comprising Blue Dart and Skye Air, and Curis Fly with TechEagle Innovations.
Vikarabad was picked for the launch of the project because it has public health centres in far flung areas and gives operators the experience to provide services in other districts. Drones, which are in communication with the command centre at all times, are designed to fly from a mobile launch pad equipped with refrigerators and freezers. Area hospitals will double up as command centres for drone operations. In case the drone loses contact with the command centre, it is programmed to land safely on its own.
In the Medicine from the Sky project, drones can carry 16 kgs and fly up to 40 km. Each box with the drone is designed to carry 1,000 to 2,000 vaccine vials. The capabilities vary. “Hepicopter, with the current class of drones, can support vaccination in remote areas by transporting about 2,000 to 5,000 doses of vaccines at two to eight degrees Celsius in one trip over a straight-line distance of 20 to 40 km,” says Prem Kumar Vislawath, founder Marut Dronetech, adding that a pair of drones can make around 10 trips daily.
There are eight consortium operators and two of them will carry out trials for a month. The project will demonstrate short- and long-range drone-based deliveries to assess the efficacy of low altitude aerial logistics in health care. What makes it a challenge is that the tasks involved overlap two of the most regulated sectors in the world—aviation and health care.
“Eight other states would take up the drone delivery tests shortly. This is a frontier technology that can be used to access otherwise inaccessible areas,” says Union civil aviation minister Jyotiraditya M. Scindia. The project will be ramped up in these states in less than a year.
A digital airspace map and a digital sky platform would jointly monitor drone services. Interactive airspace maps with green, yellow and red zones for flying drones will be displayed on the digital sky platform in two months. As many as 16 green zones would be exclusively marked for delivering medicines, vaccines, blood units, and even organs to the remotest of areas. No permission is required to operate in green zones up to a vertical distance of 400 ft. “The model being embarked upon is that of leveraging Make in India drones to carry Made in India vaccines to serve rural and isolated communities,” says Vignesh Santhanam, India Lead, Drones and Tomorrow’s Airspace, World Economic Forum.
Security agencies would monitor the services to avoid any problems. Strict measures are already in place to register drones with unique numbers, just like automobiles, and there would be a thorough screening process in the case of imports of drones. “Drones will be an important part of last mile delivery of healthcare along with telemedicine, ensuring the delivery of care when and where it is needed the most,” says Apollo Hospitals group joint managing director Sangita Reddy. Apollo Hospitals demonstrated the use of a drone as part of its Emergency Medical Services response in 2018 and showed its fantastic potential.
The drones’ audio video capability permits doctors at the base to supervise and deliver instructions for lifesaving CPR to first responders or even laypersons, for them to render first aid and start CPR before doctors arrive. In emergencies, such as a stroke, a drone can also be used to carry blood samples from an acute stroke patient to the laboratory, which can help in early diagnosis by cutting down on the turnaround time. Drones can also transport and deliver medications to an onsite emergency unit attending to the stroke patient.
“Entrepreneurs could upload their data and get permissions to fly the drone services. Prime Minister Narendra Modi aims to bring a transport revolution for which the Union government has formulated the 2021 drone policy,” says Scindia. It is based on trust, self-certification and non-intrusive monitoring. As per the new policy and rules, there would still be multiple interventions, but with no human interface, to upload data and get permissions for flight. This could unleash great potential.
India is poised to become the drone hub of the world by 2030. Engineering talent, information technology strengths, the innovative abilities of youth and the evolution and growth of start – ups are poised to give India a commanding position in global drone technology. Be it medicine or farming, mining or land mapping services, policing or urban planning, drones would play a key role in the near future. Moreover, drone production would open up immense job opportunities in the information technology hardware, software and service sectors.