Antyodaya: Drones May Be The Answer To Vaccine Delivery Challenge
It is likely that drones will be integrated into the vaccine delivery mechanism, and over time this can provide a foundation for expanding their usage — towards policing, towards protection and towards prevention.
As the world grapples with the coronavirus pandemic, cities and communities are left with drastically reduced connectivity. With a second wave and, in some cases, a third-wave imminent, precautionary lockdowns are almost certain. This, as the vaccine trials continue on an accelerated basis.
But once the vaccine is ready, there is another challenge. Namely, delivering the vaccine to more than 1.3 billion citizens dispersed across 4,000 cities and about 6.5 lakh villages. Delivering it to the farthest first and to the most susceptible early incorporating the theme of ‘antyodaya’. While a variety of methods will be used, one that may help alleviate the delivery challenge is a mechanism that has not been used in the past. Namely: drones.
The distribution of the vaccine brings with it three challenges: cost, timely-connectivity and coordination. Add to this the fact that the vaccines will have to be handled and delivered via a cold-supply chain because of the presence of antigens which start to degrade if not kept at optimal temperatures. And then there is the sheer coordination of delivering to 1.3 billion citizens of which 66 per cent comprises of the rural population.
For the government, the goal is to first verify how distributed this population is, and consequently to provide this population with the vaccine on a pre-determined basis. Planning, which is often done on the basis of on the ground inputs or by extrapolating from the situation at hand, will be critical. And this is the first link where drones can help.
At the most basic level by providing inputs on connectivity including assessments of routes and visuals of locations (where temporary setups may have to be made). Add to this, data from Arogya Setu, data on surveillance and movements, all of which can help draw up a concrete delivery proposal.
Drones can also help minimise costs due to the time involved and the volumes they can handle. In the case of the coronavirus vaccine, there is the issue of time-critical deliveries in a temperature-controlled environment. Whether it is getting to a remote village or to densely populated areas of a city — current solutions by their very nature involve time. And time lost in this case may mean additional handling challenges.
Further, in case of on-ground changes one is not left with a large vaccine shipment sitting on-ground or returning to a centralised location due to an inadequate cold storage setup at the location. The potential for incremental and iterative actions helps address the last-mile connectivity challenge in a manner that has not been done before.
Drones are ideal because of vertical takeoff and landing capability (VTOL) coupled with beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations. Indeed if each state and Union Territory has dedicated drone fleets, with the flip of a button drones may be flown and reach sites in hours or even minutes.
To be sure, this is not the first time drones will be used. India first used military grade drones during the Kargil War in 1999. Since then there have been development of indigenous drones by, for instance, India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and the drone policy 2.0 proposed by the current government.
More recently, drones were used during the Pakistani terrorist attack in Mumbai (2011), the avalanche in Northern Siachen (2016), the Bandipur forest fires (2019), the Bihar floods (2019), the Pulwama attack (2019) and the coronavirus outbreak (currently ongoing) — to name a few.
Finally, drones help address the challenge of coordination. A vaccine distribution on the scale and size that the coronavirus pandemic has necessitated has simply not been carried out. Not in India and not in any other part of the world. Thus looking to the past for solutions may not provide for answers.
Ironically, the country has grappled with the delivery challenge especially involving last mile delivery. The pandemic and the delivery of the vaccine is now speeding up efforts to provide solutions at a scale and speed that folks could not fathom. And the stakes are the highest that they could have possibly been. What earlier may have seemed like a solution only found in science-fiction books will likely become a reality in the months ahead. Drones may indeed become a fairly common sight.
And to be sure, it is not just in India. The world over drones are becoming more prevalent. A Chennai-based company is using drones to disinfect areas specified by the Chhattisgarh government; an American provider has been successfully using drones for delivery across Africa.
Commercial deliveries have been tried and tested across countries (although the regulatory mechanisms in many cases are not in place); Spanish Police have used drones with loudspeakers attached to warn residents to stay at home. China has used drones for transporting medical equipment to contagious areas with minimal risk. It can be safely assumed that extensive surveillance operations are underway. What may have seemed as an exception is soon becoming the norm.
Commercial details also confirm the growing use of drones. A report by Goldman Sachs projected that the market for drones will exceed $20 billion with revenue potential of $13 billion. The Indian market is estimated to be just below $1 billion.
If done right with a collaborative agenda, it is likely that drones will be integrated into the vaccine delivery mechanism. And over time this can provide a foundation for expanding drone usage — towards policing, towards protection and towards prevention.
For India this may be the quantum leap in last mile connectivity and in addressing contradictions. The current situation where all flights and trains have been curtailed continues. And as states come up with precautionary measures based on their own internal assessments and contagion realities, the end goal of delivering the vaccine to the farthest first and the most susceptible early cannot be overlooked.
Drones may just be the ideal solution.
Satyendra Pandey is an India market expert and has held a variety of roles within aviation. His positions include working as the Head of Strategy & Planning at Go Airlines (India) and with CAPA (Centre for Aviation) where he led the Advisory and Research teams. He is also a certified pilot with an instrument rating.
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