Health and Healthcare Systems

Why drones need to be part of public healthcare in India

Many Indian states have successfully undertaken drone experiments for healthcare

Many Indian states have successfully undertaken drone experiments for healthcare Image: Paul Kagame/Flickr

Liankhankhup Guite
Assistant director, Indian Economic Service, Government of India
Shagun Seth
Msc student, Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics
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  • Drones could be a game changer in overcoming the challenges of last-mile health service delivery in India.
  • Many Indian states have successfully undertaken drone experiments for healthcare, including the delivery of COVID-19 vaccines by drone to rural and remote areas.
  • To scale these pilots, infrastructure must be built and ways to support states with the cost of implementation must be developed.

With India’s diverse and distinct topographical variations and geographical spread, last-mile service deliveries in the country face chronic challenges, particularly in the healthcare sector. Infrastructural constraints and unequal distribution of medical facilities coupled with geographical constraints, especially in the remote and rural regions of the country, continue to hamper the timely and efficient delivery of medical supplies.

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Certain places cannot be reached by traditional modes of transport, such as trucks and vans, owing to rugged terrain that requires specialized trucks and drivers. While this approach often manages to address the immediate problems, it comes with substantial implications for cost and may not be sustainable in the long term.

As a result, taking advantage of innovative technologies, such as drones or autonomous vehicles, for last-mile healthcare deliveries is gaining momentum. Globally, firms and organizations have successfully launched projects to incorporate drones into last-mile delivery operations. Drones have shown the ability to overcome logistical obstacles, improve accessibility and increase the efficiency of transporting products and services to remote or difficult-to-reach regions.

Drones could be a game changer in overcoming the challenges of last-mile health service delivery in India.

On 25 August 2021, India’s Ministry of Civil Aviation issued liberalized rules for drones, allowing greater use of drones for service deliveries while maintaining safety and security. With the implementation of these rules, the notion of on-demand drone delivery has become the country's breakthrough invention, capable of realizing the long-delayed aim of equitable healthcare access to save and improve lives.

Telangana, Nagaland, Manipur, Meghalaya, Uttarakhand and many other states have successfully undertaken drone experiments for healthcare. The findings of a pilot conducted by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) suggest that employing drones to transport medicine and diagnostic samples in temperature-controlled payload (the load carried by the drone) boxes is effective. It is pertinent to mention that during the COVID-19 pandemic, drones played an important role in transporting vaccination doses to remote areas with difficult terrain.

A pilot initiative of Telangana and the World Economic Forum, Medicine from the Sky, shows that drones can also ensure prompt access to critical healthcare supplies by delivering blood products and life-saving anti-venom drugs in an emergency. These states have also taken proactive efforts to facilitate drone delivery by constructing distribution centres.

These programmes represent a forward-thinking approach to harnessing new solutions for addressing healthcare concerns and increasing the population’s well-being.

Drones: a stimulant to improve access to healthcare?

To enable effective drone technology implementation and improved healthcare access, the first step would be to establish a comprehensive drone delivery network and the necessary infrastructure.

Use cases for drone delivery in healthcare
Use cases for drone delivery in healthcare Image: World Economic Forum

Existing infrastructure, such as a helipad, may be used for drone take-offs and landings in certain circumstances. Drone operations can take place on the roofs of existing health facilities and district hospitals. This can save money and time by eliminating the need to create new infrastructure. A simple structure, such as a concrete pad with a windsock, can suffice and be funded by the financial and technical support provided to states under the National Health Mission (NHM) to strengthen their healthcare systems.

The government's National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) aims to improve public health in India by addressing various factors, including the infant mortality and maternal mortality rates, universal healthcare access, promoting healthy lifestyles and integrating traditional medicine into the mainstream system.

Some states and union territories in India, such as Ladakh, Uttarakhand, Kerala, Karnataka, Jharkhand, Himachal Pradesh, Bihar, Assam and Andaman, as well as the Nicobar Islands, have not used all of the funds released by central government under the NRHM. This underspend could be used for drones and drone infrastructure. Creating a separate budget sub-head for drone deliveries could help states finance drone network development and ensure that drone delivery projects are aligned with state priorities.

Drones can help states achieve these objectives by transporting medical supplies and equipment to community health workers in remote areas, helping them to provide better healthcare locally. They can also transport traditional medicine products to remote areas, where they can be used to improve the health of the population.

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As a cost-effective approach, states can also consider leasing drones from startups and private companies rather than purchasing them. When a state purchases a drone, it must pay the entire cost up front. This may be a major cost, particularly for small states. The expense of a drone may, instead, be spread across time by leasing it, which can make acquiring drones more economical for states.

The government is the largest buyer of drones, so could act as a market maker. Its 2022 budget announced a major policy to enable drones as a service, where organizations or service users can employ drones on a pay-per-area scheme. This ‘Drone Shakti’ programme focuses on promoting start-ups and encouraging the widespread use of drones across sectors proving the government's clear vision and focus towards this emerging industry.

We must now concentrate on moving from pilots to implementation at scale. The objective is to raise payloads from 2-5 kilos to 25, 50 or 100 kilos, enabling drones to be used for organ transfers; expand the range of items to be delivered; and produce higher quality drones with a life of at least 6,500-8,000 landings to make drone deliveries more efficient and cost-effective.

As drone technology continues to evolve, we can expect even more innovative applications in healthcare, from telemedicine consultations to emergency response services. Drone technology's successful implementation in the health sector holds great promise for revolutionizing healthcare systems and improving patient outcomes on a larger scale.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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