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India Plans Drone-Powered Vaccine Delivery Trials To Fight Covid

Southern state of Telangana to begin conditional experiments from end of May.

CHENNAI, India — India has allowed its southern state of Telangana to run experimental drone flights from May-end to deliver Covid-19 vaccines and speed up the country’s slow inoculation drive.

“Last month, Telangana was granted a conditional exemption for conducting experimental delivery of Covid-19 vaccines within visual line of sight range using drones,” India’s civil aviation ministry said on May 7.

“To accelerate the drone deployment process to formulate application-based models, the grant has been extended to beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS).”

The ministry said, “exemption from Unmanned Aircraft System Rules, 2021, has been granted to Telangana as part of government’s constant endeavor to enhance the scope of drone usage in the country and assist the nation in fighting the Covid-19 pandemic”.

The country is reeling under a severe second wave of Covid-19, but only 9.6 percent of its 1.3 billion population had got at least one vaccine dose until May 9. When the inoculation drive began on Jan. 16, India intended to inoculate about a third of its population by August.

India’s civil aviation ministry also allowed the apex body for biomedical research, the Indian Council of Medical Research, to conduct a feasibility study on Covid-19 vaccine delivery using drones for one year.

But long before calls for such experiments came in, at least one Indian state had run a vaccine delivery experiment using a drone in December 2020.

A drone fitted with an icebox carried non-Covid vaccines from the Drone Application and Research Centre in Dehradun, capital of the Indian mountainous state of Uttarakhand, to nearby Mussoorie. In about one hour, the drone lined about 30 kilometers.

Another test case exists. West African country Ghana tapped U.S. drone company Zipline to deliver Covid-19 vaccines to remote areas in March. Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines are being delivered through this initiative, as they require regular refrigeration (2-8 degree Celsius, or 35.6-46.4 degree Fahrenheit) to maintain stability.

“In 34 minutes, the little red-winged ‘zip’ appeared in the sky above Asuofua health center, more than 70 kilometers [43.4 miles] away,” Gavi’s website states. “The drone slowed, briefly dipped altitude, and disgorged its consignment. Packaged safely in a red insulated box, 25 glass vials twirled neatly to earth under a paper parachute.”

A woman gets a Covid-19 jab at a vaccination center in New Delhi, India. (Rebecca Conway/Getty Images)

Ghana did this experiment with the vaccines India sent as part of the Covax program, backed by the World Health Organization and the Gavi vaccine alliance.

Though drones were used in India’s initial stage of the pandemic to sanitize large areas in some states, delivery through drones was never allowed.

India has several restrictions over the use of drones by individuals and private entities, and deviation from a long list of guidelines can attract fines of up to INR 500,000 ($6,825).

But on May 5, the civil aviation ministry granted permission to 20 private consortiums to conduct a year-long experiment in BVLOS flights. The consortiums include food delivery start-up Swiggy, hyper-local start-up Dunzo, ClearSky Flight Consortium, and Marut Dronetech.

In May 2019, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation had issued an expression of interest to create “regulatory requirements to enable BVLOS commercial operations in the near future”. The committee received 34 applications and selected 20.

“It is expected that the number of iterations required to establish the safety of BVLOS operations will be significantly high. As a minimum, each consortium should complete 100 hours of experimental BVLOS flight before submission of proof of concept for approval,” the Directorate General of Civil Aviation said.

At least two of the consortiums confirmed they would help Telangana in the experimental delivery of vaccines. For the state, the government has made it clear that the “permission for BVLOS trial flights shall not be used for any commercial purpose.”

“During the 100+ hours of BVLOS flights, TechEagle will be using its in-house drone for the delivery of medicine, e-commerce parcels, and grocery items,” Vikram Singh Meena, founder, and chief executive of TechEagle Innovations, told Zenger News.

Drone logistics company TechEagle is leading the ClearSky Flight Consortium. “TechEagle has also been selected for the Telangana government’s vaccine delivery project.”

“The state has also selected Marut Dronetech to deliver Covid-19 vaccines and medical supplies for one year,” Prem Kumar Vislawath, founder of Hepicopter, told Zenger News.

Hepicopter is the medical delivery unit of Marut Dronetech, based in Telangana’s capital city Hyderabad. “Hepicopter medical delivery drone is accessible through a mobile app to enable drone penetration into remote, inaccessible areas,” Vislawath said.

Hepicopter is the medical delivery unit of Marut Dronetech, based in Telangana’s capital city Hyderabad. (Vijay Raccha/Marut Drones)

“Each drone would carry a combination of dummy vials and regular vaccines over the course of the trials. The performance would be recorded in detail, and this data would be used to guide further policies regarding full-scale adoption.”

“The drones have multiple temperature-controlled boxes to ensure the vaccines are not unfit for use due to high temperatures,” Vislawath said.

“Our drone carries multiple temperature control boxes that are provided by the Public Health Foundation of India. There are four boxes for each drone. We also have relative temperature data loggers. They maintain temperatures and log it from start to end,” Vislawath told Zenger News.

The Telangana government’s drone trials are part of its ‘Medicine from the Sky’ project that aims to provide pickup and delivery of health care items like medicines, vaccines, and units of blood through drones.

For the Covid-19 vaccine delivery experiment, the state has selected the Vikarabad district’s airspace. The experiment will be conducted over 24 days after approval from the Ministry of Home Affairs, the state government said in a press release.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has made it evident that the health care supply chain needs to be further strengthened,” Jayesh Ranjan, Principal Secretary, Industries & Commerce department of the Telangana government, told Zenger News.

“With a third vaccine expected to be commissioned, millions of doses will have to be transported across India. We are glad to receive the BVLOS approval as it’s critical for testing vaccine transport to far-flung and remote areas. Drone-delivery has the potential to take primary healthcare close to the citizen’s doorstep,” Ranjan said.

(Edited by Ojaswin Kathuria and Amrita Das. Map by Urvashi Makwana)

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