Meghalaya begins dispatching medicines using drones, first state to do so in India

The state's public health supply chain has logistical issues due to floods and landslides, difficult terrain and a challenging road network infrastructure.
Health from the skies. (Photo | Special Arrangement)
Health from the skies. (Photo | Special Arrangement)

JENGJAL (Meghalaya): When the weird bird whirred into Pedaldoba in the West Garo Hills district of Meghalaya on Monday, the locals looked up and welcomed it with loud cheers.

The alien, an unmanned aerial vehicle, came with medicines for the local primary health centre (PHC) after a 40-minute sortie from Jengjal, 68 km away.

Chesrang Momin was hugely relieved. He had to go to district headquarters Tura, 101 km away, often to get his father's blood pressure medicines. The drone station at the Jengjal Sub-divisional Hospital in the district has ensured healthcare delivery system even in the remote areas of the verdant but difficult Garo Hills.

The state's public health supply chain has logistical issues due to floods and landslides, difficult terrain and a challenging road network infrastructure. Therefore, ensuring the delivery of healthcare items to the hard-to-reach health centres is really difficult.

Funded by the World Bank, the drone service is a joint initiative of the Meghalaya Health Systems Strengthening Project and Techeagle, a start-up. Techeagle’s co-founder Anshu Abhishek claimed this is Asia's first drone station that caters exclusively to the delivery of healthcare delivery system.

The route is pre-determined and the entire flight -- from take-off to delivery and return to base -- is GPS-based, he said.

Ramkumar S, Additional Secretary of Health and Family Welfare, told The New Indian Express the drone has a payload capacity of three-five kg.

"We now have two drones meant for the delivery of vaccines, medicines and emergency kits. But we will use bigger drones from March next year. They will have a capacity to carry a payload of 20-25 kg," he said.

For the time being, the Health Department has planned five to eight sorties every day to five health centres in three districts.

"For a car, it will take about three and half hours for the round trip to Pedaldoba from Jengjal. The drone will do it much faster," Ramkumar said.

"There are some red zones and our plan is to have three drone stations so we can cover more inaccessible areas. The delivery of medicines using drones is not just cost-effective but it also saves time," he added.

Inaugurating the drone station, Health Minister James Sangma said the service is "unparalleled".

"I had my doubts but Anshu and his team pulled it off. This is a matter of great pride not just for this area but the entire state. We have become the first state which is going to institutionalise it," Sangma said.

He said it was a beautiful example of how technology could be leveraged to bring about better healthcare services to people.

The Jengjal Sub-divisional Hospital has a modern lab and Dr Denyl Joshua of the facility said the drones would help bring diagnostic samples, blood units from the far-flung areas for tests.

The Pedaldoba PHC, located on the Assam-Meghalaya border, is one of the remotest areas of West Garo Hills. It has five health sub-centres which were virtually inaccessible till last year.

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The New Indian Express