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Using drones to deliver medicines could be a reality not just in Telangana

The government is ramping up efforts to deliver medicines using drones even as a trial is underway in Telangana.

Source: Skye Air

The Medicine from Sky project, which was officially launched on September 11 in Telangana’s Vikarabad district to deliver medicines (including vaccines) with the help of drones, will be expanded to six other states, including a few in the Northeast region.

“In the next six to 12 months we are going to ramp up Medicine from Sky to six more states. We are already in talks with Manipur, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh, and Gujarat to expand this project nationally,” Vignesh Santhanam, the India lead of Aerospace and Drones at World Economic Forum and person in charge of the project, said during the Vikarabad launch event.

Currently, the Medicine from Sky project is in a trial phase and the process will be underway till October, project stakeholders at the event said. Based on the results, the government will prepare a report, identifying complications in the project and simplifying it in the future. The results of the project will also determine if it is to be expanded to Northeastern states, which are known for their mountainous terrain (thus making it difficult to deliver essential items through other means).

Committee to study drone applications in medical industry

Santhanam during the event said that the World Economic Forum has commissioned an industry-core group along with the Telangana government, Public Health Foundation of India, and NITI Aayog to look at how to mobilise capital for the medical drone ecosystem.

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This can only happen if we alleviate the misconceived risks regarding drones being an unproven business model, and we are looking to come out with an empirical formula or equation on the unit cost of drone economics — Vignesh Santhanam, the India lead of Aerospace and Drones at World Economic Forum

These are the other areas that the committee will look into —

  • Need for ecosystem: Santhanam said that the committee will be identifying areas where there are problems of last-mile delivery and where, in these cases, drones will be a natural fit.
  • Data: He also said that the committee will be looking into whether “incumbent data like healthcare system maps, overlaid with terrain maps can be used to identify places where drone intervention is needed”.
  • Integration for the future: “Finally the industry core (committee) will graduate into an intersectoral platform and integrate other application areas, such as mining, agriculture, smart cities and survey and monitoring efforts,” Santhanam added.

A look into how the trials took place

According to a press release by Sky Air, which is a part of the Blue Dart Med Consortium (one of the eight consortiums that took part in the trials), the drone flight took place between the Police Parade Ground and a local PHC (a distance of about 3 kms), in Vikarabad.

The drones flew in Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) mode. The flights, equipped with consignments of vaccine flew at an altitude of 400 metres above ground level and covered a distance of 3 kms.

We are going to continue doing BVLOS flights upto 9 kms in the coming days — Swapnik Jakkampundi, Co-founder Skye Air

Sky Air also said that the drones delivered a vaccine payload of 1.5 Kgs to 3km distance within 7 minutes. The vaccines were kept in a temperature-controlled box and maintained at 2-8 degrees Celsius. Live payload health-tracking was also enabled for the delivery, Sky Air added,

A separate press release by the Telangana government said that the launch would be followed by about a month of continuous trials by the eight selected consortiums that have been batched into 2 per week on a lottery basis.

The eight consortiums:

  • Airserve Consortium (Airserve Initiatives)
  • Bluedart Med Express Consortium (Skye Air)
  • CurisFly Consortium (TechEagle Innovations)
  • Dunzo Med Air Consortium (Skye Air)
  • Flipkart Air Consortium (DroneAcharya Aerial Innovations)
  • Hepicopter Consortium (Marut Drones)
  • Medisky Consortium (Sagar Defence Engineering)
    Redwing Consortium (Redwing Labs)

It is important to note that in May this year, the Ministry of Civil Aviation granted the Telangana government exemption from the now-replaced Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) Rules 2021 and granted permission for conducting beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS) drone operations. Based on the exemption, it was decided that trials will be held in June. However, it turned out that the government could not proceed with the drone trials because it had not received an additional exemption from the Ministry of Home Affairs. Instead, the government ended up conducting a safety workshop for the medicine delivery programme. The project finally got a go-ahead after the new Drone Rules 2021, which does away with several regulatory needs, came into effect.

Airspace map will be developed in coordination with state governments: Scindia

Union Minister of Civil Aviation Jyotiraditya Scindia said that the Indian government will be developing an interactive airspace map for drone operations for the entire country.

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As for Telangana, Scindia said that the Ministry of Civil Aviation has identified 16 green zones in the Vikarabad district itself. It is in these areas where the trials for the Medicine for Sky project will take place. “Together with the State government we are developing the interactive airspace map which will identify very green, yellow, and red zones,” he added.

For permissions, the Union Minister said that the Digital Sky platform was being developed. “Permissions will be done electronically and application will be approved electronically,” he said.

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