During the trials, which are likely to be conducted in the next two to three weeks, seven consortiums will deliver vaccines, emergency medicines and blood from district headquarters at Vikarabad to primary health centres within a 15km radius, said S. Vijay, chief operating officer of Skye Air Mobility, which is part of one of the consortiums conducting the trials. The other partners in the consortium are BlueDart, Med-Express and Dunzo.

The Union civil aviation ministry permitted Telangana early this month to conduct these ‘beyond visual line of sight’, or BVLOS, flights. The start of trials will, however, depend on the status of an ongoing lockdown in the state.

Snail pace

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Snail pace

Each consortium will get six days to complete the trial flights, for which 16 thinly populated routes have been identified. At any time, two consortiums will conduct trials, with the whole exercise concluding in 24 days.

Each drone will carry a maximum of 3kg, which is enough to carry at least two units of blood and many vaccine vials, Vijay said in an interview. “Blood and vaccines will comprise 1.5kg while the cold box (for vaccine storage), dry ice and a data logger (to record temperature) will weigh another 1.5 kg,” he said.

The ‘Medicines from the Sky’ project was envisioned by the Telangana government to deliver emergency medicines and blood using drones to remote areas. Vaccine delivery was later added for the trials following a suggestion by the NITI Aayog.

The entire digital flight log will be submitted to the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), Vijay said, adding that every consortium will have to maintain a safety expert, who will monitor operations and record data to hand over to the DGCA.

“Every drone is supposed to be cleared for airworthiness by the QCA (Quality Council of India). This is a trial to assess the safety aspects because, as of now, no single drone has been certified by the QCA,” said Vijay, a former armed forces personnel.

Currently, the Union home ministry has a ‘No Permission-No Take Off’ (NPNT) policy for drones in place.

According to the DGCA, NPNT compliance enables every remotely piloted aircraft to obtain valid permission through the Digital Sky Platform before operating in India. However, the civil aviation ministry can grant conditional exemptions to conduct BVLOS.

Meanwhile, the Digital Sky Platform, which is an unmanned traffic management system covering all of India, may take several months to be fully operational.

“This platform needs to run on an India map. The map which is going to be set needs to be cleared by the intelligence agencies since sensitive installations (nuclear facility, army camps, etc.) need to be marked or blurred so that no confidential information is lost,” Vijay said. “Unless the entire map is ready, Digital Sky will not be a reality.”

If the trials are successful, the drone delivery model for emergency medicines and vaccines will be implemented on a commercial level.

However, this will mostly be used for emergency use and for delivering medicines and vaccines to hilly regions such as North-East India, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, where transport of medicine and vaccines becomes difficult, especially during monsoons.

“Drones can’t replace trucks carrying large shipments of medicines and vaccines, but it can always be used for emergency purposes, for distribution to the last mile quickly so that lives can be saved,” Vijay said.

He, however, added that other commercial activities using drones, like food delivery, is still years away due to safety, security and privacy concerns in urban areas.

ccording to the DGCA, NPNT compliance enables every remotely piloted aircraft to obtain valid permission through the Digital Sky Platform before operating in India. However, the civil aviation ministry can grant conditional exemptions to conduct BVLOS.

Meanwhile, the Digital Sky Platform, which is an unmanned traffic management system covering all of India, may take several months to be fully operational.

“This platform needs to run on an India map. The map which is going to be set needs to be cleared by the intelligence agencies since sensitive installations (nuclear facility, army camps, etc.) need to be marked or blurred so that no confidential information is lost,” Vijay said. “Unless the entire map is ready, Digital Sky will not be a reality.”

If the trials are successful, the drone delivery model for emergency medicines and vaccines will be implemented on a commercial level.

However, this will mostly be used for emergency use and for delivering medicines and vaccines to hilly regions such as North-East India, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, where transport of medicine and vaccines becomes difficult, especially during monsoons.

“Drones can’t replace trucks carrying large shipments of medicines and vaccines, but it can always be used for emergency purposes, for distribution to the last mile quickly so that lives can be saved,” Vijay said.

He, however, added that other commercial activities using drones, like food delivery, is still years away due to safety, security and privacy concerns in urban areas.

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