Drones may soon be pressed into service over parts of India, delivering Covid-19 vaccines and medicines to remote areas as authorities step up their ambitious vaccination drive. With pilot programmes already underway, the government has begun an open tender.
Unmanned drones have proliferated in recent years because they can traverse difficult terrain, reduce labor costs and replace fleets of vehicles.
Two months ago, the Indian Council of Medical Research, conducted a successful feasibility test in collaboration with Indian Institute of Technology of Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) for vaccine deliveries.
According to the specifications, unmanned aerial vehicle (UAVs) should be able to cover a minimum aerial distance of 35 km, able to take off vertically and carry a minimum payload of 4 kg and return to command station after delivering the payload. The feasibility study made it clear that parachute-based deliveries were not an option.
“The bids have opened up and operators will be engaged for a period of 90 days, which can be extended further depending upon the performance of the UAV operator and need of the programme,” a senior ICMR official told RFI.
Official data shows that only 11 percent of the population has received at least one vaccine dose while just 3.4 percent have completed the required two doses.
Pilot programmes underway
Last week, Flipkart, the homegrown e-commerce marketplace, announced its partnership with the southern state of Telangana to lead a consortium tasked with the development and execution of drone deliveries of medical supplies to remote areas under the 'Medicines from the Sky' project.
The pilot project, which is expected to be conducted for over six days, will be tested for delivering thousands of vaccines, while keeping in mind all the safety and efficiency parameters.
“Using drones to deliver healthcare supplies to people in remote and inaccessible areas is a one-of-a-kind initiative ever undertaken in our country and we are happy to lead this initiative in collaboration with partners such as Flipkart,” Jayesh Ranjan, Telangana's Principal Secretary of IT said.
“This will go a long way in testing best-in-class technology solutions to tide over future crises."
In Karnataka, the trials will be held later this week in remote Chikkaballapur district and the official trials are expected later this month.
Researchers point out that the use of drones to deliver vaccines in low and middle-income countries could save money and improve vaccination rates.
The cost savings would come from drones being able to deliver vaccines more quickly and cheaply than land-based methods, which are limited by road conditions and the need for costly fuel and maintenance, according to the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Drones have so far been used for surveillance and in humanitarian aid delivery. But increasingly they are now being developed to transport medical samples and supplies, though previously little has been known whether this is a cost-effective use of the new technology.