By Girish Linganna
This year has been particularly eventful for drones in healthcare. In June, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) issued guidelines for their use to ensure access to medicines, vaccines and other paraphernalia to all, especially the far-flung, remote areas of the country. In August, a Bangalore-based start-up started delivering medication to a remote town in Arunachal Pradesh. In September, the Union Minister for Road Transport and Highways, Nitin Gadkari, unveiled the first drone transport prototype for organs.
India’s two heavily regulated sectors, healthcare and aviation, are coming together in a big way. Is India ready?
Sky’s the limit: Possibilities of aerial healthcare and medicare
Conventionally, aviation has enabled access to healthcare in extreme scenarios. Whether it is the quick transport of patients via helicopters or organ transport, aviation has always come in through the clutch. However, it is neither cheap nor easy to use a helicopter. Logistics alone deter their use in most scenarios. If only one could leverage aerial freedom with something more manoeuverable and applicable.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or drones have been taking the world by storm for a few years now. They bring the sky closer to many people at a fraction of the cost. Only recently, however, has its true potential been unlocked in healthcare. The trailblazers were a company in Africa, Zipline, that sought a fix for the abysmal blood transport network in the continent. Through regional centres and the internet, they could set up a network to provide the requisite units of blood to a remote local in under an hour. Their drones make a round trip and drop the blood in a container the hospital can collect.
To take this beyond blood, there have been strides in using drones to deliver medicines. The World Economic Forum launched the Medicines from Sky initiative along with the Indian state of Telangana, Apollo Hospitals and NITI Aayog. This program not only opened up new avenues for using drones in healthcare but also pushed for the liberalisation of drone rules and policies.
When Covid-19 hit Malawi, the country relied on its drone corridor network to deliver Covid-19 vaccines. The network was set up to cope with the inadequate health infrastructure. The network would provide medicines and vaccines from the hospital to remote locations. Meanwhile, the remote areas would collect viral load tests and send them back via drone for processing at a central hospital.
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Organ transplants are finicky, given the paucity of time. Along with many moving parts, such as bureaucratic hurdles, organ harvesting, patient preparation, etc., the limited time window for a successful transplant is narrow. Delays in organ transport from the donor to the recipient’s hospital take a toll that costs life. Since 2019, there have been various tests where organs have been transported via drones. While not a regular practice, for now, organ deliveries via drones can cut down hours of travel to mere minutes.
Another aspect of drones being explored in healthcare is emergency response. In an emergency, the drone can not only help find those needing rescue but can comfort them, check their vitals, provide first aid and aid their rescue. Usually, the rescue team only moves in after a while. It evaluates the situation and waits out an ongoing disaster to prevent the loss of its personnel and the victims. In such a period, like during a landslide, the team can bring first aid and psychological comfort to the victims before disaster relief initiates the rescue operation.
Turbulence: Challenges to a flying pharmacy in India
While one must laud India for being bullish on emerging technologies like drones, there are critical challenges that it must sort out. In drones, like many other emerging technologies, there is a problem of dual use. Dual use refers to the ability of a technology to be used equally for good or bad, like nuclear energy. Being bordered by two technologically equipped adversaries, along with a slew of terror threats, India is oft careful in liberalising technologies. India’s Jammu Air Force Station was attacked by a crude drone, speculated to be used by terrorists.
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Beyond the issues of policy, there are technical issues. In drones, noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) modify the characteristics of the drone. This also translates to the payload it carries. In the case of life-saving organs, it is difficult to experiment and realise that drone transport may have impacted the quality of the organ.
Further, organs, blood and vaccines required specialised transport. For example, the Covid-19 vaccine was transported only at +2 to +8 degrees Celsius temperature. With drones, there is a need to ensure the exact requirements can be met.
In the case of diagnostics, there is a significant issue with training and infrastructure. Since the drone cannot pick up the diagnostic samples while in flight, every remote location must have a person capable enough to launch the drone safely toward the regional centre. Zipline, the African company supplying blood to remote areas, has set up large regional centres from where it operates. Hence, while drones tend to democratise and make certain services accessible to a broader base, it is capital intensive.
The reason for the low pickup of drones commercially in India is also the unique DigitalSky platform with its various green, yellow and red zones that dynamically confirm the airspace where one can fly a drone. But this isn’t clear and restricts paths in and out of a city. Further, there needs to be more knowledge of this and other drone rules at the local police station. So, one can engage in the full legal use of a drone and yet be charged by the police.
Even if one can work with technical and policy issues, the general market is behind the more significant players globally. And it is a mindset issue. Many movers and shakers in the drone market are looking to invest now without a clear product or vision. This lack of commitment to a specific use case of a drone keeps international clients away and deters domestic adoption. With the buzz around drones, they continue to be a hammer that addresses every problem like a nail. India must mature its approach to emerging technology in healthcare to be able to deliver equitable and universal healthcare, pan India.
Author is an Aerospace & Defence Analyst.
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