Meds from the sky: Drones to save lives in NE
The medical supplies included vaccines, tablets, syringes, glass bottles, PPE kits and gloves requiring different payloads.
NEW DELHI: Around 20,000 medicine units were delivered by drones in some of the inaccessible districts of Nagaland and Manipur as a part of a study conducted by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR).
The ICMR study found that medical supplies through unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones were a possibility in the remotest region of the country and that people were receptive to this new idea and perceived bottlenecks of regulations and restrictions in the sensitive zones had little impact. Three districts in Manipur - Bishnupur, Imphal West and Churachandpur - and two from Nagaland — Mokokchung and Tuensang — were selected to be the area of drone operation for the study.
“Drone-based deliveries of medical supplies are proving to be time efficient; however, overcoming operational challenges could provide an effective long-term deployment strategy,” said the study published in Frontiers in Public Health.
“The present study was a unique and pioneering initiative in South Asia which delivered about 20,000 units of medical supplies to various hard-to-reach terrains in North East India,” it added. The medical supplies included vaccines, tablets, syringes, glass bottles, PPE kits and gloves requiring different payloads.
Several types of drones were used, including lightweight multi-rotor quadcopters and hexacopter, single-rotor helicopters, and fixed-wing vertical take-off and landing UAVs for long distances between 60km to 120km. The fixed-wing drones were more stable in flying and had more endurance both in hills and plains.
The study said such operations required highly skilled and trained drone pilots to plot waypoints critically, prepare flight plans, maintain the aircraft, and monitor take-off and landing. Drones are “emerging technologies” with the potential to leapfrog the last mile logistics solution for transporting medical supplies thus, strengthening the healthcare system, stated the study.
“Several issues were encountered during the project, including regulatory approval, technical difficulties, secure landing sites, logistic and terrain-related issues, lack of trained operators, unpredictable weather conditions, communication with locals, telemetry, and the cost of flight,” Dr Sumit Aggarwal, scientist, ICMR, and lead author of the study told this newspaper.
Other challenges included transporting drone batteries to the spot, non-availability of take-off, and poor road transportation network in the region were faced by the team of experts. The study said that the new drone policy introduced in 2021 provided flexibility in conducting operations less than 400 feet above ground level in green zones (above 12 km from the airport perimeter) and yellow zone (above 5 km from the airport perimeter).
“Drones can be a useful tool for delivering medical supplies, vaccines, and other relief materials in difficult terrains. It also shows that drone technology has the potential to improve healthcare access
in hard-to-reach areas,” said Aggarwal.