Scrambling to turn back the surge of COVID-19 infections and deaths sweeping the nation, India has broadened testing of drones in delivering vaccines and other medicines to Beyond the Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) destinations.

Drone-delivered vaccines to remote locations

The move comes a little over a week after Indian authorities cleared trial delivery flights in Telangana state. Groups of drone and tech industry companies, health experts, and government agencies participating in the last-mile testing were initially required to respect Visual Line of Sight (VLOS) limitations. Now those have been lifted amid the piking spread of COVID-19 across India.

The BVLOS waiver arrived earlier than anticipated, and reflect the unprecedented gravity of India’s current COVID-19 wave. On Monday alone, India added 366,161 new COVID-19 cases to its 22.6 million total. Reported deaths for the day were 3,754, lifting the total to 246,000.

Under the new directives, trial flights will be held in successive phases over a 24-day period. For the two days, groups of four drones will make test VLOS deliveries covering a range of distances. Those sorties will shift to BVLOS mode for a second block of four days. Onboard sensors will monitor adherence to vaccine cold chain requirements, and BVLOS flights will be limited to a maximum altitude of 400 feet above ground level. 

COVID-19 emergency inspires middle-mile objectives 

The tests are slated to begin toward the end of May as part of India’s “Medicine from the Sky” program seeking to increase access to medical treatment – including vaccines – to underserved remote communities. In its statement announcing the approval of BVLOS tests, the Ministry of Civil Aviation and the Directorate General of Civil Aviation indicated the deadly explosion of Covid in the country had forced a broadening of their initial aims.

The grant of these permissions is intended to achieve the dual objectives of faster vaccine delivery and improved healthcare access by ensuring primary healthcare delivery at the citizen’s doorstep, limiting human exposure to COVID congested or COVID prone areas through aerial delivery, ensuring access to health care to the last mile…(and) integration into the middle mile of medical logistics for long range drones and improving medical supply chain, with millions of doses to be transported across India.

Critics doubt drones

Reports in Indian media say the area around Telangana’s main hospital will serve as the base for tests, with local air traffic controllers overseeing flight coordination.

Government critics have noted the sped-up trial deliveries to remote areas will do little to stem the current crisis. The most urgent problem India now faces is a critical shortage of oxygen and ventilators in urban centers. Meanwhile, India is also struggling with a scarcity of vaccines for its population of over a billion people.

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