Every day for the last 20 days, a team of technicians and engineers in Gauribidanur, which is about 80 kms from Bengaluru, have been on a special mission — getting their two-feet-by-two-feet copter buzzing in the air to test for speed and accuracy.
These are drones that are on a 45-day pilot trial for healthcare purposes — mostly, they have been delivering medicines to patients in remote or hard-to-reach homes. These are among the experiments being tried out in India as part of an effort to ramp up health infrastructure, at a time when the threat of a third wave of Covid-19 looms large.
“The government has asked us to do 100 hours of this kind of experiment, so what we are trying to do is about eight deliveries on a daily basis. It’s the first time we are trying drone deliveries beyond the visual line of sight. While we will stick to day-time experiments for the first 50 hours, after that we will try out night-time deliveries as well," said Nagendran Kandasamy, CEO and Founder of Throttle Aerospace Systems, which is among the companies that have got approvals from the Director-General of Civil Aviation.
The drones manufactured by his company are of different sizes and capabilities — but the one used for medical purposes (called a MedCopter) can carry up to two kgs in weight and flies at a height of about 120 meters. But these are technology demonstration specifications given by the DGCA for the pilot, to minimise risk. It can be enhanced to carry goods up to 10 kgs in weight and travel at an altitude of 1 km soon enough.
While the DGCA has given a 20 km radius in Gauribidanur to prove the tech, eventually, the plan is to be able to ship goods up to 100 km range too — for example, vaccines to remote areas of the northeast from nodal hospitals.
“The drone has various sensors on it, so they continuously interact with the outside — it can sense its surroundings, be it another drone or a manned aircraft or some kind of obstacle like a tree in front of it. It’s a purely autonomous drone and has a 360-degree collision avoidance sensor that senses danger and avoids it. That’s how the system can play a vital role in remote areas," said Kandasamy, adding that trials so far have been successful.
“Last week, we did a challenge — we asked an ambulance to start at the same time as our drone to go to a hard-to-reach location. The drone was able to do so in four minutes, while the ambulance took 26 minutes. So the saving of 22 minutes is a game-changer," he says.
For a country where thousands of families were literally searching entire cities to find critical drugs like remdesivir just about two months back, to be able to deliver such drugs on time would be critical to saving lives — especially in rural areas where moving from one place to another by road has its own problems.
“What we are looking at is not medicine delivery – but connectivity," said Smit Shah, the Director of the Drones Federation of India.
“When you can deliver 1 kg from point A to B, why only waste it for medicines. Tomorrow we can look at this for blood, plasma, we can even scale this up to create a green corridor between hospitals or between the airport and hospitals, to facilitate organ delivery. It is about developing technology that is capable of delivering packages of particular weights from one point to another by eliminating all traffic and roadways and logistical issues,” he said.
India is about two to three years behind in drone technology but is catching up fast. So far, the trials have proven effective, even in regions with high winds. However, internet connectivity may be a challenge in remote areas as these drones need 4G connectivity to track their own routes and identify destinations.
The precision landing technology that these drones are armed with the assurance that it can sense the right markers on the ground with the camera fitted to its bottom.
“We have two mechanisms. One, where if you have an A4 size print out in a 3 m-by-3 m marked area with the code given, the camera senses it and lands in that place or it will hover while the winch brings the tether down and touches the ground, automatically releasing the box with the medicines. The second, where we have a lock mechanism secured by an OTP. Once the drone lands, the recipient gets the OTP on his phone. When he puts the OTP, the lock opens. We are trying both ways to see efficacy. We are also trying to see if we can do away with the printout and instead display the code on a phone," Kandasamy said.
Countries like Rwanda and Ghana have started extensively using drones for medicine delivery, with over 1 lakh deliveries already done, said Shah.
“There are also some experiments happening in Australia and the US where leading companies have come together to form a consortium and are experimenting with this. All this will give us the experience and required data to develop this path forward. Right now, the trials are in a controlled environment. We have companies gone away from dense cities to rural parts where the first experiments have started without flying over people. Once the hours start increasing, they will try and fly over areas with low density of population, so that too can be tried out before we can actually move to densely-populated areas," said Shah.
The next four to six months would be both exciting and a game-changer in rural health if this sector gets unlocked, he added.