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Centre mulls using drones to deliver COVID19 vaccines to underserved areas

Drones

You’re reading it here first: The Central government wants to deploy drones — unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) — to deliver COVID19 vaccines to underserved regions in the country. A group of government institutions, on being nudged by the country’s Principal Scientific Advisor’s (PSA) office, has come up with a proposal for a pilot project wherein drones will be used to make deliveries to public health centres and camps on the outskirts of Bengaluru.

The pilot project’s success could see its expansion to hilly and forested regions in Kerala, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, Assam, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. Laboratories operated by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) across the country will be used launch pads for the drones, notes the proposal document available on the PSA’s website. The organisations responsible for the pilot are CSIR-Central Scientific Instruments Organisation (CISO), CSIR- National Aerospace Laboratory (CSIR-NAL), CSIR-Indian Institute of Petroleum (CSIR-IIP), CSIR-4PI and IIIT Bengaluru. 

According to director of CSIR-CSIO, SA Ramakrishna, the call for the proposal came from the PSA’s office around February. “The proposal was given in response to the call from PSA’s office two months ago. Although we have had some discussions and some industry is interested in it commercially, we are looking into how to fund the demonstration,” Ramakrishna told MediaNama.

The proposal document claims that drones are the solution to ensuring COVID19 vaccine deliveries in rural areas with poor connectivity, cities with high traffic congestion and in mountainous regions where even short distances take long times to traverse. Supposedly, the problem of cold storage during last-mile transportation of the vaccines can be solved with packing them with dry ice.

How the pilot project will work

  • Vaccines will arrive at Kempegowda Airport in Bengaluru, then transported to and stored in a cold-storage warehouse to be identified by CSIR-CSIO
  • Drones developed by National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL), IIT Kanpur or industries such as Dynamatic Technology, IdeaForge will be used to deliver vaccines at Hoskote and Doddaballapura taluks near Bengaluru
  • Flight times are expected to be less than 45 minutes
  • Algorithm developed by IIIT-Bengaluru will help in scheduling pre-specified drop locations in a 40-50 km area around the hub

The pilot is planned in the region of Hoskote and Doddaballapura near Bengaluru, where CSIR-CSIO and the other organisations have institutional backup and industrial partners, according to the proposal document. Long-distance drones capable of flying over 100 km and a few short-range drones will be utilised to cater to public health centers and camps around a vaccine warehouse (to be identified later).

“The drones will be appropriately geo-fenced, equipped with long range telemetry, registered on Digi-sky platform and will conform to all regulatory requirements including return to home facilities. Permission with the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) will be sought for all UAV flights through the Digi-Sky platform or independently. The drones will be piloted by experienced and licensed pilots of NAL, IIT Kanpur or associated UAV industry,” the document read.

The drones will use a dry ice packaging manufacturing unit developed by CSIR-IIP that will be able to support flight time of less than 45 minutes. “A specialised software will schedule pre-specified drop locations using several drones of varying capabilities in a 40-50 km radius around the hub along specified paths and flying times,” it added.

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The cost of the project is around Rs 1.04 crore; the proposal notes that it will need at least 10 drones, 11 pilots, and the establishment of a drone launchpad.

Similar med delivery pilots taken up in other areas

According to a recent report in the Tribune, the Indian Army tested an indigenous UAV for delivery of Covid-19 essentials in Punjab. On April 16, ‘Made in India’ drones were tested over villages in Abohar in Fazilka district. The task was ‘to deliver essential supplies, including masks, liquid-sanitiser and medical canisters, sources confirmed.

Last year, the Telangana government in partnership with World Economic Forum and HealthNet Global issued an expression of interest called ‘Medicine from Sky’ for delivery of vaccines, long tail medicines, blood components, diagnostic medical samples using drones.

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