India’s battle against the COVID-19 pandemic gained momentum as soon as the vaccines were rolled out. However, vaccinating over a billion people has been a mountain of a challenge. Several rural districts do not have access to basic healthcare, let alone the COVID vaccines. Therefore, drones are carrying out vaccine delivery to remote locations in India. Initiatives like ‘Medicine From The Sky’ and various other drone delivery trials have pushed aerial vaccine delivery forward.

Vaccine Delivery in India

India started administering vaccines to its citizens in January 2021 and has already given out a billion doses as of October 2021. However, delivering the shot to such a vast population had some hiccups along the way. One of the challenges was reaching remote demographics. Around April-May, several states were facing large-scale vaccine shortages.

Citizens living in dense urban areas and metropolitan cities had better access to vaccines. COVID vaccines require special low-temperature storage conditions which can be hard to achieve in rural areas. Therefore, delivering vaccines to rural hospitals quickly is essential. This is where drones fit into the vaccination effort.

Using Drones to Deliver Vaccines

Drone delivery trials have been going on for over a year in the country. Last year, over 13 consortia were given permission to test BVLOS drone delivery. The latest drone regulations will further facilitate drone deliveries in the future. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the utility of delivery drones. Drone companies like Zipline in Rwanda have already been delivering medical supplies and COVID vaccines to remote areas for quite some time.

Medicine From The Sky

‘Medicine From The Sky’ is the Telangana government’s first drone delivery project that will distribute medicines and vaccines to various rural districts in the state. The BVLOS project was started on 11th September in collaboration with eight consortium partners such as Blue Dart, Skye Air Mobility, Marut Drones, etc. The first flight under this project delivered a vaccine payload of 1.5 kg, 3km from Vikarabad in under 7 minutes.

The HepiCopter drone by Marut Drones that is being used for vaccine delivery
The HepiCopter drone by Marut Drones that is being used for vaccine delivery

The HepiCopter drones developed by Marut Drones are being used in the project. These drones reportedly have a payload capacity of 16 kgs and a range of 40 km. As mentioned above, COVID vaccines require low-temperature storage. Therefore, a special temperature-controlled box was mounted on the drone to complete this operation. This has the potential to greatly improve vaccine accessibility for people living in remote locations.

North-East Drone Deliveries

Another recent initiative to boost drone deliveries and vaccination has begun in the North-Eastern part of the country. The Union Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya launched the ICMR Drone Response and Outreach (i-drone) in the Northeast. This model of vaccine delivery will ensure vaccines are transported to even the most hard-to-reach terrains of the region.

The helicopter drone used for vaccine delivery in Manipur
The drone used for vaccine delivery in Manipur

The first flight within this project delivered vaccines from Bishnupur district hospital to Loktak lake, Karang island in Manipur. The drone delivery covered a distance of 15 km within 15 minutes. The health minister added that the distance between the two locations by road equates to 26 km. Thereby, making this delivery model not only fast but also more economical.

The Future of Drone Delivery in India

The introduction of the Drone Rules 2021 in August has only paved the way for more Indian drone manufacturers and drone-related startups in the country. If the government-aided delivery projects are executed as planned, it will provide a strong foundation for commercial drone delivery. While urban drone deliveries may still take some time, developing and deploying rural drone deliveries falls within the scope of the Indian drone regulations.

As regulations, certification standards, and drone technology improves, such projects will become more mainstream. This may also invite foreign drone delivery companies such as Zipline, Amazon, and Google Wing into the Indian market. The domestic drone industry is flourishing at a rate unlike ever before and this trend will grow in the coming years.