Will drones change the way we deliver medicines?

Source: Livemint

Relevance: Using drones to solve logistical challenges related to medicine delivery.

Synopsis: Vaccinating huge population of India is indeed a big challenge. Leveraging drone tech for medicine delivery will certainly help. Progress of the research and challenges involved.


Recently, images of healthcare workers carrying covid-19 vaccines to remote villages in hilly Arunachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir went viral on social media. In some cases, they had to trek for hours through arduous terrain.

It’s possible to hope that such treks may soon no longer be required, if experiments to deliver vaccines, and other life-saving medical payloads, with drones are successful.

Present situation

Presently in India, multiple private startups are now working with the government to test the feasibility of using drones to deliver medical payloads over longer distances.

At present, it is said, they may not prove to be cost-effective—though this is still being worked on—but they certainly would be time-efficient.

Usage in medicinal logistics

Drone technology in India is being leveraged in two ways for medicinal logistics:

  1. One is for direct delivery wherein the medicines or blood samples are delivered directly to an individual or a hospital. In this case, the entire distance is covered by the drone.
  2. Other method is using drone only for the last-mile delivery. In this case, drones are used as a bridge between medical warehouses and government primary health centres, or PHCs. This case entails usage of a combination of a four-wheeler vehicle and a drone. The vehicle carries the drones and payloads (10-15kg), covering large parts of the distance to a location. The drone is used for last-mile delivery.
BEAM Committee

Two years ago, Union govt. set up the BEAM (BVLOS Experiment Assessment and Monitoring) committee. The government had constituted the BEAM committee’ to invite Expression of Interest (EOI) to undertake BVLOS experimental flights of drones.

  • EOI from more than 30 entities and selected 20 consortiums for the experiments.
  • Recently, the Union ministry of civil aviation granted conditional exemption to these consortiums from the Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) Rules, 2021 to conduct “Beyond Visual Line of Sight”, or BVLOS, experimental flights to test out the use of drones for delivery of food and medical packages.
Approvals required

The main requirements to enable the use of drones for delivery or logistics is permission to fly beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS operations) and permission to carry and drop payloads.

  • The rules do not place an outright prohibition on the use of drones for delivery but these types of operations are permitted only with very specific approvals from the DGCA (directorate general of civil aviation)
  • Another route is through conditional exemptions, which can be granted by the ministry of civil aviation.
  • High-wind speeds: A key challenge is operating the drones in high wind speeds.
  • Poor internet connectivity: The other issue is operating in a bad internet connectivity region. Currently, 4G networks are used to send commands to the drones.
  • Temperature control: Apart from weather and network constraints, the trickiest logistical challenge in medicine delivery is temperature control. A medicine delivery drone will need temperature-control mechanisms to maintain the shelf life of supplies. Take, for instance, the covid-19 vaccines: Vials of both Covishield and Covaxin need to be kept at a storage temperature range of 2-8 degrees Celsius.
  • The government and drone operators will also have to reach an agreement on emergency airspace usage for vaccine transportation.
Global examples
  • Internationally, Zipline, a US-based drone delivery startup founded in 2014, has changed the way blood and medical supplies are delivered to remote communities in Rwanda. In early 2021, Zipline announced that it was partnering with the government of Ghana to deliver covid-19 vaccines.
Way forward

India must look beyond the current regulations. Once there is enough regulatory support for long-range drones that can fly up to a range of 100km, for example, and bigger payloads, trucks and four-wheelers will become redundant. We need is to create a favorable ecosystem where things can actually go forward.

Vaccinating over a billion people is a huge challenge for the government, which is primarily relying on the extensive railway network, besides road and air transport to distribute vaccines even to the remotest parts of the country and hilly regions. Drones can come in handy.

Also Read: Facing up the drone challenge – Explained

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