Last month, images of healthcare workers carrying covid-19 vaccines to remote villages in hilly Arunachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir went viral on social media. In some cases, they had to trek for hours through arduous terrain.
It’s possible to hope that such treks may soon no longer be required—if experiments to deliver vaccines, and other life-saving medical payloads, with drones take wing. Drones, recently in the news for an attack on an air force station in Jammu, are already being used in some countries for medicine and vaccine deliveries.
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In Rwanda and Ghana, for instance, an American drone company has revolutionised blood and vaccine delivery over the last five years. Drones have been used in the US too. In India, multiple private startups are now working with the government to test the feasibility of using drones, which come in a variety of sizes and use different mechanisms, to deliver medical payloads over longer distances. At present, it is said, they may not prove to be cost-effective—though this is still being worked on—but they certainly would be time-efficient.
Two years ago, the Union government set up the BEAM (BVLOS Experiment Assessment and Monitoring) committee that evaluated interest from more than 30 entities, selecting 20 consortiums for the experiments. Recently, the Union ministry of civil aviation granted conditional exemption to these consortiums from the Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) Rules, 2021 to conduct “Beyond Visual Line of Sight”, or BVLOS, experimental flights to test out the use of drones for delivery of food and medical packages.
“The main requirements to enable the use of drones for delivery or logistics is permission to fly beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS operations) and permission to carry and drop payloads,” says Delhi-based Anirudh Rastogi, founder and managing partner at Ikigai Law, a technology-focused law firm. “The rules do not place an outright prohibition on the use of drones for delivery but these types of operations are permitted only with very specific approvals from the DGCA (directorate general of civil aviation).... Another route is through conditional exemptions, which can be granted by the ministry of civil aviation,” Rastogi explains on email.
One of the consortiums selected is led by the Bengaluru-based drone company Throttle Aerospace Systems, which has partnered with technology company Honeywell and Swiss firm Involi, the consortium’s UTM, or unmanned traffic management, partner. They are currently conducting tests in Gauribidanur, in Karnataka’s Chikkaballapur district.
“We started with the pre-flight checks towards the end of June, followed by long-range flights daily,” says Nagendran Kandasamy, founder and director of Throttle Aerospace, which has created customised software, called RANDINT, for the tests. “We spend eight-nine hours in the field and have to continue these flight tests for at least 35-40 days.” Using a database of medicines, blood groups and other information from Narayana Health, the consortium’s use case and health partner, the software creates a mock, on-demand order for medical packages.
Throttle is testing within an airspace bubble predetermined by the Airports Authority of India. Within this 20-22km area, it has created more than 20 mock sectors, or delivery locations. When the software raises a delivery order for a specific sector, Throttle’s ground staff prepares the payload and attaches it to the drone. It’s like feeding the right information and algorithms to Artificial Intelligence software.
In future real-life scenarios, demand for medicines could come from individual users or hospitals, says Kandasamy. Interestingly, in one of its early tests, a Throttle drone not only matched, but handsomely beat,the time it took an ambulance to deliver a package over a distance of around 4km. “The ambulance reached its destination in 26 minutes. The drone took four minutes.”
The MedCOPTER X4 and X8—the two drone models being tested by Throttle—use a winch mechanism and a secured box system, respectively. These are designed specifically for deliveries. The X4 drone can hover at a fixed altitude while a tether lowers the package slowly. “The user can unclasp the package from the tether. Or, once the package touches the ground, the tether is released automatically and the drone reels it back in,” Kandasamy explains on the phone. The X8 has a secured, locked box—once the drone lands, the user receives an OTP to unlock it.
Internationally, Zipline, a US-based drone delivery startup founded in 2014, has changed the way blood and medical supplies are delivered to remote communities in Rwanda. These high-speed drones, powered by lithium ion batteries and electric motors, are propelled into the air through a catapult mechanism—they can go from 0-70 mph in less than a second. Recently, Zipline raised around $250 million (around ₹1,800 crore) in new funding. It is now valued at $2.75 billion.
A key challenge, says Kandasamy, is operating the drones in high wind speeds. “The other issue is that we are operating in a bad internet connectivity region. We use 4G networks to send commands to the drones,” he explains, adding that the consortium is consulting network providers to get access to better bandwidths of internet data.
Both the models they are trying out can carry payloads of up to 1-2kg. While their nominal cruise speed is around 9m/second, they can reach speeds of up to 24m/second. They are also designed to withstand light drizzle.
The temperature challenge
Apart from weather and network constraints, the trickiest logistical challenge in medicine delivery is temperature control. Just the way a food delivery drone is expected to get you hot and fresh food, medicine delivery drones will need temperature-control mechanisms to maintain the shelf life of supplies. Take, for instance, the covid-19 vaccines: Vials of both Covishield and Covaxin need to be kept at a storage temperature range of 2-8 degrees Celsius.
Earlier this year, Zipline announced that it was partnering with the government of Ghana to deliver covid-19 vaccines. Crucially, the startup used specialised packaging to maintain the right temperatures for the vaccines. Volansi, another American drone startup specialising in the medical logistics space, partnered with pharma major Merck to deliver temperature-sensitive vaccines to parts of North Carolina, US.
“There are challenges on several levels. There have to be a lot of modifications to the drone if you have to carry medical payloads,” says Suresh Munuswamy, who heads health informatics and technology innovations at the non-profit Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI). “Medical payloads in most cases are temperature-controlled. There are certain medicines that need to be kept at 15-24 degrees Celsius. Blood samples have to be kept at very specific temperatures as well.”
Dr Munuswamy explains the active and passive temperature control methods that can be used. In the active method, an electric-powered mini-compressor is added to the drone to maintain the temperature. The passive method involves precooling certain liquids and fluids to ensure the right payload temperature. Throttle, for example, is testing dry ice or icing gel pads in its payloads. “In both these cases, the temperature control takes more space and weight compared to the payload itself,” says Dr Munuswamy.
Drones as a bridge
The PHFI, along with the Health Informatics Rapid Design Lab at the Indian Institute of Public Health (IIPH), Hyderabad, has been working on a medicine drone delivery project since 2015, with the aim of using drones as a bridge between medical warehouses and government primary health centres, or PHCs.
The non-profit is currently running pilot trials for its “Sky Bridge” platform in Telangana’s Vikarabad area. This platform uses a combination of a four-wheeler vehicle and a drone. The vehicle carries the drones and payloads (10-15kg) , covering large parts of the distance to a location. The drone is used for last-mile delivery.
The trials will showcase the drone’s ability to carry different kinds of medical payloads, and temperature-controlled boxes with realistic data for evaluation. “They might not be cost-effective but drones bring in extreme time efficiency,” says Dr Munuswamy.
At present, the rules around BVLOS and VLOS flights allow only a certain class of drones. Dr Munuswamy believes India must look beyond the current regulations. Once there is enough regulatory support for long-range drones that can fly up to a range of 100km, for example, and bigger payloads, trucks and four-wheelers will become redundant. “There have been many ups and downs in this area but the pace of progress has improved now, with better guidelines,” he says.
The next three-six months could see some actual results from the existing class of drones, he adds. “Drone technology is also quite mature now and there is actual need on the ground for such innovation in India at the moment. What we need is to create a favourable ecosystem where things can actually go forward.”