India leverages drone technology to facilitate the vaccine rollout
You may have read that India is currently facing the world’s fastest-growing coronavirus surge.
Although — as of May 1 — the country opened vaccination to everyone aged 18 and up, many of the now estimated 900 million eligible citizens won’t be able to get the vaccine for quite some time, because of widespread supply shortages.
While the government deals with these supply challenges, it’s simultaneously pulling all the stops it can to ensure that there are no logistical hangups later in the vaccination rollout.
One measure that the Indian government is supporting is drone-based vaccine delivery. In particular, the Indian Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) has recently issued two approvals for vaccine delivery via drones.
The first approval was for a collaboration between the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur (IIT Kanpur.)
As part of this collaboration, the organizations will conduct experimental delivery of Covid-19 vaccines by drones and create feasibility study. The approval only allows drone operations within regular visual line of sight (VLOS), but it is good for a full year.
In addition to assessing the technical requirements and feasibility factors, the trials will assist authorities in assessing conditions such as population, degree of isolation, geography, and other factors that may make certain regions more needing drone deliveries than others.
Allegedly, if the first stage one of this feasibility study (which will be conducted on the IIT Kanpur campus) is successful, then in the next stage of the trial, IIT and ICMR will seek DGCA approval for BVLOS operations, which, if granted, would make it possible to explore more real-world delivery scenarios.
And what about the second approval?
On top of the approval issued to ICMR and IIT Kanpur, the DCGA also approved the the standard operating procedures of Telangana government, which is teaming up with a Hyderabad-based startup called Hepicopter and the Indian Institute of Public Health (Hyderabad) Public Health Foundation of India to do a feasibility study for delivering vaccines by drone, also within VLOS conditions.
It’s worth mentioning that these approvals don’t mean that these two feasibility studies are definitely going to happen.
And, the kickoff dates of these studies are still uncertain because both groups of organizations will have to obtain clearances from the Indian Ministry Defence, the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Indian Air Force, the Airports Authority of India (AAI), and local authorities in the places where their testing will take place.
Why would this matter?
Right now, part of India’s strategy to deal with the pandmeic has involved creating and managing containment zones: neighborhoods, colonies, or housing societies where infected people live are sealed, and access is restricted.
In containment zones, restrictions on movement and interaction are the most severe. In many cities, the entire area of a containment zone is barricaded, and the entry and exit points closed. Only the very basic supplies and services are allowed inside, and there have been significant logistical challenges of providing those basic supplies and services.
If the drone experiment proves viable, it will become easy to reach containment zones that are locked down with not only vaccines, but also tests and medical supplies – as well as remote villages that lack proper road connectivity.
In addition to the potential these feasibility tests have to help tackle near-term logistics, they also could set a powerful precedent of drone innovation in India and other parts of the world.
This would be a notable silver lining to the otherwise devastating COVID-19 pandemic.
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