The next big leap: Can India use drones for the delivery of COVID-19 vaccines?


Recently, the Union Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) has granted permission to the Telangana government to use drones within the visual line of sight (VLOS) range for experimental delivery of COVID-19 vaccines across the state

The Ministry of Civil Aviation and the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) recently granted permission to the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) to conduct trials for the delivery of COVID-19 vaccines using drones. The ICMR will conduct the feasibility study in collaboration with IIT Kanpur for which permission has been granted for one year. But can India use drones for vaccines?

Drones in the country are allowed to be used within the visual range, and agencies have to seek special permission from the Civil Aviation Ministry for conducting trials beyond the visual line of sight. Recently, the Union Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) has granted permission to the Telangana government to use drones within the visual line of sight (VLOS) range for experimental delivery of COVID-19 vaccines across the state, for a period of one year.

The Telangana government had sought the exemption from Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Rules of 2021, in March 2021, to incorporate drones into their logistics systems. The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), through an email, sent on April 26, accorded the approval of the standard operating procedure (SOP). MoCA’s joint secretary Amber Dubey, in the order, said, “The Central Government, in the exercise of powers conferred by Rule 70 of the UAS Rules, 2021, grants conditional exemption to the Applicant Telangana Government, for a period of one year or until further orders, whichever is earlier, from the UAS Rules 2021 for the purpose of trying out drones for delivery.”
Now, let’s see how drones can help in delivering vaccines and can India use drones of COVID-19 vaccines.

Can drones deliver vaccines?

Vaccinating over a billion people across different geographies and topography of the country has become a mammoth task for the government. It can rely on its railways, air transport, however, looking at the enormous scale of the situation, every possible option for vaccine delivery should be considered, including the use of drones for delivery. Drone-based distribution systems, for which various feasibility studies are being conducted already, could be an efficient method of transporting vaccines, especially to remote parts of the country, where traditional logistic channels like air and railways may find it difficult to reach, a senior official with the DGCA had said.

What are the major challenges in deploying drones to deliver vaccines?

India’s armed forces and military have been using drones with payload delivery capability since early 2000 and learnings from their experience can help mitigate some challenges that could come up now.
However, major challenges for vaccine transportation using the immediate deployment of drones and UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) are “maintaining low-temperature conditions during the transportation of vaccine vials, and the government and drone operators coming to an agreement on emergency airspace usage for vaccine transportation,” said Mark Martin, chief executive of aviation consultancy firm Martin Consultancy LLC. “As part of covid vaccine Transportation, India has the potential of using up to five UAV/drone per district with a range of 80km and with a payload delivery of 10 kg and endurance of 2 hours. With 718 districts in India, a total of 3,600 drones can be easily deployed, for operations to distribute 3,600 kg of effective weight of vaccines each flight, or 15,000 kg vaccine distribution capability in a single day,” Martin added.

Have drones been used earlier for something similar?

Drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) was helpful in 2020 during the first wave of the pandemic. As the cases were rising, several drone startups like Garuda Aerospace, Indian Robotics Solutions, Redwing Aerospace and many others stepped in to carry out sanitisation drives, surveillance activities, delivery and more with the help of drones.

However, the government of Telangana had been looking to incorporate drones into their medical logistics fleet before. In 2019, even before India reported its first Coronavirus case, the Telangana government in collaboration with Apollo Hospitals and the World Economic Forum formalised the plan for a six-month drone delivery pilot called ‘Medicines from the Sky’, starting in 2020. The project aims to explore the use of drones to increase access to healthcare for communities across the state.

A similar drone delivery project had also been announced by the Maharashtra government in partnership with California-based medical product delivery company Zipline. The Maharashtra government’s drone delivery network was expected to become operational in the early last year. Through this initiative, the Maharashtra government aims to put all of its citizens within minutes of a lifesaving delivery via drones.

However, the actual usage of drones might be a long way forward. Only time will tell.


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