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Medicine from the sky: Three of eight consortia receive SOP clearance from DGCA

If the trials are successful, the drone delivery model for emergency medicines and vaccines will be implemented on a commercial level. (File Photo: AFP)Premium
If the trials are successful, the drone delivery model for emergency medicines and vaccines will be implemented on a commercial level. (File Photo: AFP)

  • The use of drones to deliver vaccines and medicines will be mostly for emergencies and will be deployed in difficult-to-reach hilly regions such as in northeast India, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh

NEW DELHI: After a brief delay, India’s first pilot programme of drones delivering covid-19 vaccines is expected to take off soon in Telangana. The delay was the result of lockdown curbs imposed by states amid the second wave of the pandemic.

At least three of the eight consortia carrying out trials for the 'Medicines from the Sky' project have received Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) clearance from the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) for operating drones in category of beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS) category. The rest are expected to get the clearance soon, said a senior official with the agency, who spoke under the condition of anonymity.

"The risk assessment exercises were carried out on 11 June while three of the consortiums received clearances for their SOPs (to operate BVLOS drone flights) on 17 June," the official said.

During the trials, likely to be conducted again in the coming days, eight consortia will deliver vaccines, emergency medicines and blood from district headquarters at Vikarabad to primary health centres within a 15km radius.

Flipkart, BlueDart, Med-Express, Dunzo, among others, are part of these consortia.

"Each drone will carry a maximum of three kg, which is enough to carry at least two units of blood and many vaccine vials," said S. Vijay, chief operating officer of Skye Air Mobility, which is part of one of the consortiums conducting the trials.

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

However, the use of drones to deliver vaccines and medicines will be mostly for emergencies and will be deployed in difficult-to-reach hilly regions such as in northeast India, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, where transport of medicine and vaccines becomes difficult, especially during monsoons.

The pandemic makes it ideal for drone trials for delivery of vaccines and emergency medicines, said aviation analyst Mark Martin, chief executive of Martin Consulting LLC.

"Only challenges I see can come from airspace restrictions, and issues with air force and defense for use of airspace for the trials but the state government can work around these easily," Martin added.

According to protocol, the Telangana government will be informed after all consortiums get a SOP clearance to carry out drone trials. Following this, once the state government gives a green signal, the Airport Authority of India (AAI) will issue a NOTAM or Notice to Airmen informing them about the drone trials.

NOTAM is information given to pilots containing details essential to flight operations which include activities slated on the airspace like drone trials.

During the trials, the eight consortias will be divided into four batches of two each. While each consortium will get six days to complete the test flights, all trials are slated to be completed in 24 days.

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