Dr Shailesh Jhawar, Director – Critical Care, Apex Hospitals; Girish Korde, Team Principal, Alpha MD – Global Healthcare Research & Consulting; Dr Kaushik De, Healthcare Research & Consulting, Alpha MD
Social distancing has been a key weapon in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic and Gordian knot for service delivery. Drone companies can be the key to deal with such a Gordian knot. Drone technology can be used on a scale which it has not been used earlier to reduce person-to-person contact and thereby breaking the chain of transmission of Covid19.
Drone technologies has been shown to be technically feasible for certain set of tasks for which they have been tested, and few companies like Zipline have even been able to develop a business model with some measure of success. In a crisis like the current Corona19 pandemic, regulators have been focusing on the key question—in this case, how can the drones be better used in breaking the chain of infection?
A few examples of drone use to combat Covid19 have emerged around the world. One such example is during China’s COVID-19 outbreak, drone operators and the Chinese government accelerated their national pilot programs. In fact, a major Chinese logistics company completed thousands of flights to deliver 11 tons of medical supplies and parcels to areas stricken by COVID-19. The usage of drones in China reportedly reduced delivery time by over 50 percent as compared with road transportation, and it reduced the human to human contact to zero, which helped to decrease COVID-19’s spreading.
In addition, the task of delivering testing samples to laboratories was handled by various drone companies. The usage of technology with minimal human contact helped the quick diagnosis and quarantining of infected people. More importantly, drones were used to transport critical medical supplies into hospitals safely where COVID-19 patients were being treated.
Three key areas impacted by Drone technology for COVID-19 response
Aerial spray and disinfection
Earlier, drones were used to spray pesticides for agricultural applications. Currently, these drones were adapted to spray disinfecting chemicals in some public spaces and on epidemic prevention vehicles traveling between impacted areas in China. Aerial spray and disinfection can be one of the multiple applications of drone technology in the healthcare space and these avenues could be explored further as a result of the COVID-19 situation.
Chinese drone company MicroMultiCopter (MMC) has been working with China’s Government to find a number of the ways to use drones, including the spraying of disinfectant, to support cities afflicted by the coronavirus.
Hospitals in China are using drones to disinfect rooms. These drones emit an ultraviolet light throughout an area to kill viruses and bacteria without exposing any human personnel to infection. Since there are thousands of deaths each year attributed to hospital-acquired infections, automation to prevent disease is a great opportunity for robots.
Aerial spray and disinfection can be one of the multiple applications of drone technology in the healthcare space and these avenues could be explored further beyond the COVID-19 situation
Transport of samples
Due to the contagiousness of COVID-19, it is safer if human contact is minimised. For contactless delivery, tech companies have stepped up to the challenge to get more technology out in force to deliver (e.g. medical supplies) within healthcare environments.
For example, drones may be used to transport samples including swabs to diagnostic laboratories from remote areas via unmanned aerial vehicles. Doctors and hospitals need medical supplies and laboratory testing more than ever, and drones are the safest and fastest ways to deliver medical supplies and transport samples from hospitals to laboratories.
In Wuhan, a drone was used to deliver medical supplies to the hospital. This technology not only speeds up delivery of essential medical supplies and samples but also reduces the risk of exposure to medical staff and making a major difference in efforts to combat the disease.
Transportation of samples and medical supplies using drones – within the treatment delivery center and across the treatment delivery stakeholders – could be an upcoming norm in the global healthcare space
Medical aid supply and delivery
Drone delivery of essential items can ensure that people have access to food and other goods during a pandemic in future, while restricting human contact. Even prior to the onset of the pandemic there has been a need for logistics network of autonomous delivery drones to help deliver emergency medicines and critical care products even to the remote parts of India.
Supply of essentials was a challenge in parts of China even before the pandemic due to difficult terrains. When the social distancing measures led to a suspension of the routine supply chain, Meituan Dianping, a delivery app, ramped up their contactless delivery options through autonomous vehicles and robots and ensured the supply of essential items.
The logistics affiliate of Alibaba used robots and has been involved with getting medical aid donations to areas of China such as Wuhan that need them for testing and treatment of the coronavirus.
In India, a partnership for using drones to deliver medical supplies was initiated in 2019. The Government of Maharashtra and Zipline announced their partnership for the development of this service in late 2019.This initiative will be supported through a grant from SII (Serum Institute of India), the largest vaccine manufacturer in the world. The Government of Maharashtra’s vision is for Zipline to establish a total of 10 Distribution centres across Maharashtra in phases over the next several years. The government’s goal is to put almost all its 120 million citizens within minutes of a lifesaving medical delivery by drone. In the first phase of operations, two distribution centres located near Pune and Nandurbar will be established to service public health facilities in those regions beginning in early 2020.
In future, we can expect greater usage of drone technology for collaboration between healthcare providers and logistic partners – as a result of the COVID-19 experience
Critical success factors for drone technology adoption in healthcare
Coordination between the public and private sector is essential. Drones are subject to strict regulation outside of consumer use and civil aviation authorities need to respond quickly to requests for health applications while preserving the safety of the airspace and those on the ground. Some countries like India have created fast track conditional exemptions to Government agencies for COVID-19 related remotely piloted aircraft system (RPAS) / drone operations. The exception includes permit to carry up to 25 kg during daytime.
Such steps will eventually lead to the assimilation of the technology in the fight against corona.