“Drones for Mules”: India Moves to Bolster Medical Supply Deliveries in Remote Regions

When most people think of drones and the military, they envision armed UAVs firing rockets or raining gunfire down upon enemy troops and installations.  Certainly, drones have a major – and expanding role – to play in modern warfare – just look at the current conflict in the Ukraine.  But many armies are beginning to deploy drones in non-combatant roles, including aerial surveillance, intelligence gathering, command-and-control and logistics – enhancing their fighting abilities but also reducing their operational costs, minimizing troop casualties and better treating and saving their wounded.  These drone programs also tend to offer spin-off benefits to needy elements in the civilian sector.

The Indian army recently devised a plan to add tethered drones and ground robots to replace 60% of the mules they currently use to conduct operations in remote and often inaccessible mountainous areas.  The ground robots actually resemble live mules but are sturdier and more reliable and can travel across difficult terrain even faster than their mammalian counterparts.  The drones are of several types:  some are smaller cargo drones that can carry rations and medical supplies to their troops stationed in border outposts; others are larger drones intended as transports of wounded soldiers and civilians; still others are equipped with high-powered zoom and thermal imaging cameras for surveillance of enemy troop movements, especially clandestine night-time operations.

For now, the Indian Army is focusing on the more humanitarian and life-saving missions of their drones, which are still being developed and tested by engineers at MIT/Chennai, among other centers.  The larger drones are unusually heavy, weighing up to 225 lbs., with a payload capacity up to 45 lbs., capable of carrying containers of medicines, food, provisions and even fuel oil, across different altitudes.  The drones can fly through the fog, rain, and gusty winds frequently found in the high-altitude northern regions in which they are being deployed.  They also come equipped with obstacle-detection and wind sensors ensuring a smooth landing and takeoff and stable flights through adverse conditions.

The drones’ guided navigation system, developed by the research team using GPS technology, allows the aircraft to travel up to 13 miles round trip at an altitude up to 3,000 feet, far above the normal ceiling allowed for drone aircraft.

The current plan calls for the development of 500 drones in several phases.  So far, the drones have undergone successful tests and trial runs in the dense jungles and high cliffs in India’s remote north-eastern regions. Engineers have also conducted a trial in the vast desert region of Pokhran – India’s historic nuclear test site – to assess the durability of drones in unusually high atmospheric temperatures. The Army has already agreed to purchase the first batch of drones and hopes to begin deploying them later this year.

MIT professors Senthil Kumar and Thamarai Selvi, who recently obtained an Indian patent for the timer-based switch used in the new drones, envision important spin-offs to the civilian medical sector, which is severely under-developed in the remote regions where the Army’s Border Observation Posts are located.  The same drones could be used to transport human organs, rare blood, and plasma to aid patients at civilian hospitals in the northeastern region and elsewhere, the two researchers say.

In other remote areas of India, including north-central Himachal Pradesh, known for its unusually harsh terrain, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) has also begun testing custom-built drones to speed medical supply deliveries to civilians in need.  During its first trial run in September, the “i-DRONE” delivered hundreds of units of blood samples and other diagnostic specimens along a road that is often subject to heavy snowfall.  The round trip, which normally takes at least 2 hours by road, took just 26 minutes with the drones.

During the trial, the quality of blood was checked against change of speed, height, temperature, change of pressure, and potential disruptions from launching and landing the aircraft.  The integrity of the blood cells not only remained intact for the duration of multiple test flights (which at one point reached 12,000 feet) but actually exceeded the levels normally found during more traditional means of transport, ICMR researchers found.  Researchers noted that the time savings afforded by drone flights could well make the difference in preserving vulnerable blood specimens which otherwise spoil when transit is delayed .

In a separate initiative, the World Economic Forum recently sponsored the second phase of its “Medicine from the Sky” program in Arunachal Pradesh, another remote mountainous area of northeastern India where conventional delivery systems often fail to reach those most in need.  This latest phase consisted of 650 drone flights of more than 8,000 medical products to over 200 patients across a challenging 10,000 square mile ground distance in the region.

Initiative sponsors say it’s a dual use program that’s also open to beneficiaries in the military sector, who often hail from the same impoverished sectors of Indian society.  The Initiative’s been billed as the largest medical drone delivery trial to date not just in India – but in all of Asia.

“The Medicine from the Sky initiative has demonstrated how the country can successfully make use of cutting-edge drone technology to ensure no one is left behind, in terms of access to primary healthcare.” said Jyotiraditya Scindia, India’s Minister for Civil Aviation.  “We are hopeful that subsequent phases of this initiative will mainstream drones in healthcare.”

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