Pilot projects to get drones to deliver vaccines, drugs
On a sunny weekend this month, the residents of Vikarabad district in Telangana witnessed an unusual sight: a flight of drones between the Police Parade Ground and a primary health care centre, a 3-km distance. The flight was aimed at assessing how life-saving blood, vaccines and medicines could be delivered more rapidly and to remote areas.
This was a “beyond visual line of sight” (BVLOS) drone trial run for Telangana’s “Medicine from the Sky” project that kicked off in September. It used the identified airspace of the Vikarabad district, 75 km from Hyderabad, and successfully delivered critical healthcare supplies such as vaccines via drones flying at an altitude of 400 metres.
“Drones could bring transformational change in rural and remote areas with instant access to vital medical supplies,” said Swapnik Jakkampudi, co-founder of Skye Air Mobility, a drone-tech start-up that ran the trials with Blue Dart Med Express Consortium.
Skye Air’s drones delivered the vaccine payload of 1.5 kg to the 3-km distance within seven minutes. The trial was conducted using state-of-the-art temperature controlled box maintaining 2-8 degrees Celsius. Further, live payload health tracking was enabled to ensure safe and secure package delivery. The trials witnessed manless flights navigated remotely through a control centre.
“Our battle against Covid-19 continues to unfold with new challenges that need solutions in real time,” said Balfour Manuel, managing director, Blue Dart. “The pandemic has taught each one of us the importance of logistics and the need for a techled supply chain infrastructure.”
India has so far vaccinated around 56 per cent of its population with one dose and 17 per cent with both doses. The current situation calls for much deeper penetration of vaccines, especially in remote areas. “Delivery of vaccination through drones would help achieve this goal,” said Manuel.
The trials will continue till mid-october. Jakkampudi of Skye Air said drones can reduce a 1.5-hour delivery time by road to 30 minutes or less.
Skye Air is not alone in such endeavours. This month, Techeagle, another delivery drone firm, also launched drones for the Medicine from the Sky Project. This involved delivering medicine and vaccine samples through drones in collaboration with the Telangana Government, NITI Aayog, World Economic Forum and Apollo Hospitals.
Hospitals in Vikarabad were selected for trials as central points because of the presence of cold chain facilities.
Vikram Singh Meena, founder and CEO, Techeagle, said the Peregrine X-drone being used in the project is fully automatic. It has 4G-enabled communication, which provides real-time positioning of the drone, and makes it controllable from any part of the world. It flew the drone with 4 kg of payload consisting of 200 doses of Covid-19 vaccines. Peregrine X maintained a temperature of 2.4 degrees Celsius throughout the flight. The firm has plans to conduct over 100 deliveries to over six community health centres.
Experts said that the new liberalised drone rules 2021 have given the much-awaited opportunity to scale indigenously developed drone technology. Anshu Abhishek, co-founder and chief operating officer of Techeagle, said the Medicine from the Sky project is expected to be an important enabler for the development of the drone industry. “We will evaluate the over 1,000 data points captured in the flights,” he said.
Smit Shah, director of Drone Federation of India, said the project is a critical step towards strengthening India's rural healthcare capacity. “We look forward to other states taking inspiration from Telangana's initiative to supply vaccines and other healthcare supplies via drones.”
Last month, in Bengaluru, Throttle Aerospace Systems (TAS) and India’s largest B2B e-commerce platform Udaan successfully completed the trial run for drone delivery of medicines, under the supervision of the Director General of Civil Aviation. This included the BVLOS trial-run for drone delivery of medicines. The trial was conducted within a 15-km radius at Gauribidanur on the outskirts of Bengaluru by Udaan for the last mile delivery of medicines.
The success of the trial run opens a massive opportunity to revolutionise customer experience in the distribution and logistics space. “It is aligned with our vision to build tech-enabled solutions to empower small businesses such as kiranas, shop owners, chemists, and MSMES that are based in the remote corners of India,” said Soumyadeep Mukherjee, product engineer, Udaan.
In June, Flipkart partnered with the Telangana government to lead the consortium tasked with the development and execution of the drone deliveries of medical supplies to remote areas under the Medicines from the Sky project. The pilot was tested out for delivering thousands of Covid-19 vaccines in Hyderabad. Googlebacked delivery and e-commerce firm Dunzo Digital also led a Med-air consortium along with industry experts to conduct experimental BVLOS drone delivery flights for the Medicine from the Sky Project.