First vaccine delivery by drone completed in India

Hyderabad, TELANGANA – India has joined the medical drone logistics bandwagon.

On September 11 this year, people gathered at a site in Vikarabad, about 74 kilometres outside Hyderabad bore witness to history in India as the first ever drone to transport medical supplies in the country touched down safely – becoming the first of many pilot tests scheduled to deliver MMR, influenza and COVID-19 vaccines in the southern state of Telangana over the coming month.

The flight tests are the final proof of concept for a project called Medicine from the Sky in which the state of Telangana, the World Economic Forum, Apollo Hospital’s HealthNet Global and public policy think tank, the National Institution for Transforming India (NITI Aayog) brought their heads together in a bid to find a more effective way of satisfying the healthcare needs of remote and vulnerable communities in the state.

Such communities include isolated populations and hazard-prone areas.

According to a statement released by the WEF, this will be the first drone delivery of COVID-19 vaccines in Asia. Although no exact distances were mentioned, the flights will be carried out beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS).

“Being at the forefront of leveraging emerging technologies, Telangana has always acted as a testbed for innovative solutions to support scaling across the nation,” said K.T. Rama Rao, Minister of Information Technology, Industries, Municipal Administration and Urban Development of Telangana, India. “The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted that healthcare supply chains can be further strengthened and drones offer a robust value proposition especially when it comes to remote areas and emergencies. The Medicine from the Sky is the first of its kind initiative in the country to generate insights that shall benefit the entire ecosystem. The enthusiasm and support by all the partners is deeply appreciated.”

Coming on the hills of India relaxing its drone regulations, the Medicine from the Sky project was first mooted at an event in Telangana last year, with the partners wasting no time in calling for suitable drone companies to join their quest. In the end, eight companies were shortlisted, which include Sky Air, Marut Drones and TechEagle Inoovations; all of which were involved in the first demonstrations at the weekend; to show how drone technology can be an effective option for successful low-altitude healthcare logistics.

“The Forum is pleased to support Indian government and industry in demonstrating how emerging technologies can be used to improve access to healthcare for its most vulnerable populations,” Timothy Reuter, Head of Aerospace and Drones at the WEF said. “The project has set into motion the adoption of drones to deliver lifesaving services across the country. We believe that India’s work with drones can serve as a model for other countries in the region and beyond.”

Reuter’s colleague at the WEF Vignesh Santhanam, who is the organisation’s Lead, Aerospace and Drones, concurred.

“Ever since Telangana issued the expression of interest in expanded drone use in March 2020, the industry has witnessed an acceleration around policy decisions,” said Santhanam. “With the latest liberalisation of India’s drone economy, the Medicine from the Sky initiative has made efforts to invigorate the drone sector in India by demonstrating the essence of cooperative federalism and creating a template for the region.”

The trials are being conducted with the full blessing of the Vikarabad municipality, India’s Ministry of Civil Aviation, the Directorate-General of Civil Aviation and the Airports Authority of India.

“This pilot project has been enabled through a series of collaborations between India’s regulatory agencies state government, the World Economic Forum, international organisations, healthcare experts and drone companies,” said Anna Roy, Senior Adviser Frontier Technologies at NITI Aayog. “The Medicine from the Sky community has acted as an important platform providing advice and insight that has translated the extensive academic groundwork into action on ground. Through a highly collaborative effort, the pilot programme also demonstrates the importance of localized inputs and micro planning for healthcare in remote parts of the world.”

The outcomes from the trials will be analysed and used to scale up the effort to additional states with the support of the Medicine from the Sky community and key stakeholders.

The project is expected to be expanded to six states in the coming months.

While this is apparently a bid deal for India, a few countries in Africa have already been there and done that – the whirl of a delivery drone leaving a central hub of approaching a destination is no longer a spectacle for many children living around areas that have drunk the health drone logistics Kool Aid in countries like the DRC, Ghana, Malawi, Mozambique, Rwanda; and – lately – Nigeria, Botswana and Uganda.  

Of course, there are countries worse affected than others, but on the whole, more than half the citizens of sub-Saharan Africa are said to live more than two hours away from a hospital, according to a report by the African Federation for Emergency Medicine. Given that the issue of poor road networks and poor transport facilities were cited as one of the major reasons why most people on the continent have no access to emergency healthcare, maybe it is time policy makers seriously considered the possibility of drone technology bridging that gap.

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