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Drone tech: Redefining Health Logistics 

The steep rise in the adoption of drones into India’s healthcare model is testimony to India’s unwavering stand at achieving efficient, affordable and equitable healthcare. This dynamic sector has been rapidly evolving and expanding with start-ups redefining and reshaping the future of healthcare through innovation and investors cashing in on this profitable sector that is set to disrupt the market space.

By Sonali Patranabish

Traversing the most rugged terrains and landscapes, drones are the change-makers, bridging gaps in the healthcare system with respect to supply chains especially in isolated, and hard-to-reach rural pockets in India.From fragile and sensitive medications to even blood and sputum samples, drones are turning out to be champions in the Indian healthcare arena.

While the urban counterparts can reap the benefits of a flourishing ecosystem w.r.t prompt medical services and state-of-the-art infrastructure it’s the rural areas that face the brunt. Topographical constraints and vast geographical expanse pose an added layer of hindrance for a sector grappling with issues to making basic medical facilities like timely diagnosis, laboratory testing and delivery of medical supplies a herculean task.

20 kilometres in seven minutes, 95 kilometres in one hour, while traversing such distances is unthinkable, the groundbreaking invention of the 21st century, drones are transforming the healthcare space while addressing India’s deep-rooted logistical challenges. Today, India stands

At the forefront of embracing this transformative technology, puts us one amongst 12 countries on the global platform leading the drone industry.

Messiah for the masses

For a system fraught with myriad challenges and obstacles, UAVs are a saviour. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) a.k.a. drones have been gaining increased popularity in recent times.

Having been used across diverse sectors like agriculture and transportation, their incredible potential and superior features like the ability to provide high-resolution images, 3D mapping and locating hotspots with damage have today been leveraged to the benefit of the healthcare sector as well.

“Drones offer a viable solution to the perennial challenges of infrastructure and geographical barriers that often delay critical healthcare services,” opines Ankit Kumar, CEO, Skye Air.

From distributing vaccines, therapeutic supplies and life-saving drugs to even diagnostic kits, drones have been a saviour for developing countries grappling with issues of last-mile delivery. India has stood out on the global platform as one of the pioneering countries as far as adopting drone technology in healthcare is concerned. Drones have been creating waves in the healthcare sector streamlining on-ground medical targets in hard-to-reach terrains in our country.

Rustom Lawyer, Co-founder and CEO, Augnito states, “Drones are concurrently emerging as a game-changer in healthcare logistics. Medical drones are poised to transform supply chains, rapidly delivering critical supplies, medications, vaccines, and lab samples to remote or underserved areas. In emergencies, they can be efficiently deployed to deliver life-saving interventions, such as defibrillators, significantly improving response times and survival rates.”

The pandemic in turn underscored the need and importance of timely delivery of medicines and vaccines to rural, tribal and isolated communities. It was during these times that drones were fully leveraged to enhance the existing medical supply chains. Drones have been used to transport vaccines during the COVID-19 pandemic. In a landmark achievement, a medical drone was able to supply vaccines to the middle of a freshwater lake in Manipur. The 31 km trip was covered in a mere 15 minutes which benefitted needy farmers. 

Packed with myriad benefits, medical drones are a power-packed package of superior features. Reducing travel time drastically in comparison to regular modes of transportation. Due to Beyond visual line of sight technology, drones can also fly longer distances. Moreover, this life-saving technology is budget-friendly and easy to operate requiring minimal expertise, enabling easy on-ground deployment.

The upbeat drone ecosystem

India is set to become a key player in the drone market with 13,000 drones currently registered. The market is replete with start up’s like Garuda aerospace, Ideaforge , Skylark drones,Skye air Mobility and Preimage.

Tata 1mg has used drone assisted delivery of medicines to Dehradun. Similarly Zomato had partnered with the Telangana government for deployment of medicines from warehouses to distribution centers.Tata Coffee had also used drones for delivery of COVID vaccines.

As part of the World Economic Forums initiative, Medicine from the sky, Telangana carried out a 300 drone enabled trials for vaccine delivery. Around 650 drones were tested in a very demanding landscape and terrain like Arunachal Pradesh, where close to 8000 medical products were delivered across an expanse of 15,000 km. 

Garuda aerospace is yet another drone technology company that has been transforming the healthcare space with their advanced drone solutions.In a partnership with Narayana health, the company’s drone ‘Sanjeevani’ was used to transport biomedical samples.White Knight drones by Garuda space have previously been used to transport medicines and vaccines to Bengaluru hospitals.

Marut drones’ healthcare logistics drone – Hepicopter, in a feasibility trial displayed immense potential in covering a distance of 42 kilometres in 40 minutes in Vikarabad in Telangana .This trial showed the immense potential of drones in overcoming geographical barriers to deliver medical essentials.

In a bid to transport key medical supplies and diagnostic samples like sputum and blood samples etc, ICMR conducted a pilot study for drone – assisted transport from hospitals in Keylong in Himachal Pradesh to other remote primary health centers. This mission was successful as it transported 100 units of antibiotics , antipyretics , multivitamins and other diagnostic samples while maintaining a temperature of -15 degrees, transporting essentials in a record time of 26 minutes which would have otherwise taken 2 hours for a round trip by road. These successful trials have further reinstated faith in the feasibility and viability of drone led delivery. The success of this trial has motivated ICMR to deliver supplies via drones to PHC’s in Manipur and Nagaland.

The Government Doon Medical college has also embraced drone technology as part of the Namo Drone didi scheme for the transport of samples and medical essentials to rural areas. 

In a similar attempt to ensure quick dispatching of medical supplies to hospitals in Himachal Pradesh, Cipla partnered with Sky Air. This drone mediated delivery ensured that the right temperature was maintained while transporting crucial medications across 50 km, which was delivered in a record time of 25 minutes.Cipla also aims to target other hilly terrains like Uttarakhand and the north -east for drone -based deliveries.

TechEagle a drone logistics company has collaborated with AIIMS and INI’s to deliver medical supplies to rural segments.A distance of 47 k.m. that would take nothing less than four hours on road took as little as 34 minutes to transport 5 kg of medical supplies to AIIMS Rajkot. Examples like these further reinstate our faith in the incredible potential of drone technology in reshaping healthcare logistics. For instance Marut Zap, a drone solution based on a specialised sensor technology and AI driven approach helps to detect and count mosquitoes and their larvae in a given affected zone or area. Through this technology data is generated in areas where higher mosquito breeding levels are detected and subsequently bio enzymes are sprayed in order to prevent further risks of vector-borne diseases.

Progressing through partnerships – PPPs

Public-private partnerships (PPPs) are being leveraged to fuel innovation and applications in drone technology to achieve India’s healthcare goals.

Redwing Aerospace Labs in collaboration with Samridh Healthcare an innovation platform funded by the USAID-United States Agency for International Development has worked towards launching a pilot drone programme to improve accessibility to Rayagada district, in Odisha which has 3234 villages that often face periodical cut-offs due to the wrath of seasonal changes.

The goal of Redwing’s ‘Made in India’ electric hybrid Vertical Take-off and Landing (VTOL) is to ensure aerial delivery of drugs, vaccines and diagnostics which will make patients accessible to quicker and more efficient methods of testing and treatment. Leveraging the drone model is indeed proving to be a game changer, especially in rural and tribal areas.

Companies like Skye Air are committed to transforming the healthcare space with their efficient and fast deliveries, in turn saving lives. Skye Air has collaborated with government organisations like AIMS in different regions of the country like Kolkata, Manipur, Jodhpur, Bhubaneswar and Deogarh.

Incentivising through initiatives

The government has been quite upbeat about integrating drones into the healthcare model in a bid to achieve universal health coverage. With a vision to see India as a global hub for drones, the government has rolled out a slew of policies and initiatives to usher in this technology allowing further penetration into the healthcare domain. One such scheme is the PLI – Product linked initiative scheme with a budget of Rs 120 crore which aims to boost the domestic drone manufacturing market.

“The Indian government’s increasing openness to drone technology, exemplified by progressive regulations and support for pilot projects, underpins the feasibility of leveraging drones in the mainstream healthcare model,” added Ankit from Skye Air.

This disruptive sector is set to take the industry by storm, statistics claim that the drone market is expected to generate a revenue of $27 million by 2024. The Drone Shakti scheme adds a spring in the step for emerging start up’s who are committed towards innovating and bringing about a radical change in the medical domain.

Catalysing growth – Hotbed of innovation

The drone technology sector has grown tremendously in the recent past fuelled by India’s Make in India stand, which has urged native Indian players to take the plunge into this very lucrative sector. Advancements in drone technology like long lasting durable batteries for longer flight time, advanced sensory capabilities and integration of the latest in the field of AI based image intelligence features has improved the viability and feasibility of this autonomously operated revolutionary technology.

“Innovations in drone technology are reshaping the landscape of healthcare delivery, transcending geographical boundaries, and addressing critical challenges with unprecedented efficiency. From swiftly transporting life-saving medicines to clearing mosquito breeding grounds in remote areas, drones have emerged as versatile assets in modern healthcare ecosystems,” opines Prem Kumar V, Co-Founder & CEO, Marut Dronetech.

While AI integration continues to empower drones, voice AI gives an added layer of enhanced autonomy to drones. “The convergence of Medical Voice AI and associated technologies, as well as drones will redefine healthcare, making it more accessible, efficient, and patient-centric,” opines Lawyer from Augnito. 

Lawyer goes on to add that AI and voice AI are set to revolutionize healthcare delivery in the years to come.

Regulatory challenges

India is faced with a few impediments as far as whole hearted adoption of drones is concerned.

“One of the primary challenges is regulatory compliance and airspace management. Drones operate in regulated airspace, and ensuring compliance with aviation regulations is crucial to ensure safe and legal operations. Striking a balance between safety risks and an emergency medical situation will be the key to see increased integration of drones into the healthcare system,” opines Ankit.

The 2021 drone regulations have been a breather for the drone ecosystem in India trying to gain a foothold in the medical delivery space.

Imminent technical blockades due to weather conditions , battery life and accuracy to navigate are few of the hurdles that can come in the way of deployment of drones.

The drone technology is a very alien concept for healthcare professionals who need to be trained to operate these. Leveraging and integrating drones into a healthcare system will require end to end coordination and collaboration of regulatory bodies , healthcare stakeholders and technology experts. Following protocols from dispatch to delivery will require a lot of forethought and planning. 

The future

The future of drone technology seems encouraging, backed by a string of success stories from every pilot project to trial.Drones have indeed proved their worth as one of 21st century’s breakthrough inventions.

India has made remarkable progress w.r.t providing quality healthcare services to all. Extensive healthcare coverage even in hinterland can help bridge imminent gaps as well as boost the economy of the nation. The use of drones has gained prominence mostly during the pandemic given its ability to transport everything from medications to even blood samples across vast distances in almost half the time. Given their promising potential to further health outreach from subzero temperatures to the sweltering heat of the summer ,from delivering blood samples and temperature sensitive medications , drones have ticked all the checkboxes for being an ideal ferry for healthcare.These superheroes are transforming the healthcare space breaking barriers and bridging gaps.


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