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Drones for vaccines: ICMR seeks bids, Telangana explores ‘Medicines from Sky’

Companies with logistics experience including Flipkart and Dunzo have announced their consortia under Telangana’s drone delivery scheme to develop and execute drone deliveries there.

Written by Pranav Mukul , Prabha Raghavan | New Delhi |
Updated: June 15, 2021 7:05:16 am
ICMR is seeking UAVs capable of operating beyond visual line of sight.

With the focus moving to delivering vaccines in difficult to reach areas, the Centre and state governments are taking the drone route to get to such terrains. On one hand, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) has sought bids from drone operators to supply medicines and vaccines; on the other, the Telangana government has launched a project to check delivery feasibility of medical supplies. Companies with logistics experience including Flipkart and Dunzo have announced their consortia under Telangana’s drone delivery scheme to develop and execute drone deliveries there.

As per ICMR’s June 11 tender document, floated by HLL Infra Tech Services on its behalf, the aim is to develop a “feasible” model for vaccine delivery to ensure last-mile coverage of “difficult” terrains in “selected” locations. It was floated using the preliminary results of a “successfully” conducted feasibility study with IIT-Kanpur to deliver vaccines using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

In April, the Ministry of Civil Aviation had granted a conditional exemption to ICMR for its study with IIT-Kanpur on feasibility of BVLOS operations for vaccine deliveries. Based on the experience from this study, ICMR is seeking UAVs capable of operating beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) and can cover distances of 35 km at “minimum” altitudes of 100 m.

It should be capable of carrying a minimum payload of 4 kg and adhere to the DGCA and the Ministry of Civil Aviation’s safety and weight standards. The feasibility study has made it clear that parachute-based deliveries will not be preferred. However, while 20 consortia have been picked by the Ministry for experimental BVLOS operations, none have been cleared to carry out these operations as yet. Current rules stipulate that drone operators only fly their UAVs when in line of sight.

These include SpiceJet, Dunzo Air Consortium, Skylark Drones & Swiggy, ClearSky Flight Consortium, Throttle Aerospace Systems and Virginia Tech India.

On the lines of the conditional exemption granted to ICMR, the Centre also exempted Telangana from the BVLOS restrictions to allow drone operations to test feasibility for vaccine deliveries. Industry executives indicate that with BVLOS, drone operations become more cost efficient as economies of scale can be brought in. This is possible by the ability of having the drone pilots located in a situation while the UAVs are operated in a different region. These can be specifically more useful in cases of time-sensitive deliveries.

In a statement announcing its participation in the Telangana government’s ‘Medicines from Sky Project’, Flipkart said: “As part of the consortium, Flipkart will utilise learnings from its tech-enabled supply chain to deploy drones and enable deliveries of vaccines and medical supplies”.

“A combination of these technologies will then be used to conduct BVLOS deliveries in remote areas of the state where the road infrastructure is not conducive for fast delivery of vaccines. The pilot, which is expected to be conducted for over six days, will be tested out for delivering thousands of vaccines while keeping in mind all the safety and efficiency parameters,” it added.

The ‘Medicines from Sky’ project has been conceived by the World Economic Forum and Healthnet Global Limited, and outlines the requirements for drone delivery and how to assess proposals. Telangana has adopted this framework to implement drones for last-mile delivery and plans to integrate them into the state’s healthcare supply chain.

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