The development of safe and effective Covid-19 vaccines has been a huge step forward towards combating the pandemic, arresting the pan world spread, bringing down the fatalities and the number of people getting infected. The R & D including the production is one vital part of the whole ambit of vaccination, equally important is the supply and distribution utilising the varied supply logistics chains as also the administration of Covid vaccine jabs. The successful vaccination drive of any nation includes three-pronged fights with Covid 19, that is, its prevention, surveillance and containment.
Every technology available at hand must be used examining its viability for fighting Covid 19 and improving the situation worldwide. The technologies such as geospatial an amalgamation of GIS, Remote sensing & GPS, AI, big data, telemedicine, blockchain, 5G, Internet of Medical Things (IoMT), robotics and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) or Drones may well assist in combating Covid 19 for detecting, monitoring, diagnosing, screening, surveillance, tracking, mapping, sensitising and creating awareness amongst the people.
UAV or Drones have been used sporadically till date in response to Covid 19. The applications and deployments of drones are for the purposes such as delivering Covid vaccines and medicines; aerial spraying for decontamination of partially and fully contaminated areas; lab sample pickups and dropping of reports for reducing the time and less exposure to infection; surveillance and monitoring of areas for controlling the movements during lockdowns and quarantine; surveying the inaccessible and dangerous areas; capturing the live administration of vaccination and relaying back to the health control centres.
Several sub-Saharan countries like Rwanda, Malawi, Ghana and Sierra Leone have employed drones for delivery and transportation means. A case in point is a company named ‘Zipline’, a drone delivery service is utilising its experience and innovative technology to help deliver Covid-19 life-saving medications, blood products and vaccines to the patients placed in the remote areas of the Africa region. It has also partnered with the Government of Ghana to help deliver COVAX vaccines.
Another example is a corporate logistics giant based in Germany, ‘DHL’, which has been launching small drones that take off without needing the runway for launch. They are using these drones to deliver medications in the coastal and other remote areas of the country. These drones also feature a temperature-controlled capacity unit that delivers the medications at their required temperature.
Drones can also act as a saviour in time-critical situations. In 2016, Google had also taken a step towards introducing a new device that could call for a drone in case of emergency with just the press of a button saving the lives of many in an emergency. The device can also play a vital role in delivering samples to laboratories that are far away from the collection areas.
India also launched its first-of-its-kind drone driven aerial delivery facility to transport Covid vaccine and emergency medicines to inaccessible and difficult areas in the most safe and fast manner. Drone delivery of vaccines will go a long way in fulfilling Prime Minister’s ‘Har Ghar Dastak’ campaign for a house-to-house vaccination drive.
The district of Palghar in Maharashtra carried out an experiment to deliver Covid 19 vaccine doses in a remote village situated in rugged terrain. Also, a batch of 300 vaccines transported from Jawhar to Zaap village took just 9 minutes which otherwise take more than 40 minutes. Using drones for delivery purposes offsets the time and cost penalty otherwise would be there if other means are used. Apt to call drones as covid warriors.
India’s Universal Immunisation Program is one of the largest in the world, but vaccine logistics remains a challenge. Drones could play a key role in all three fields of combating Covid 19 under this programme – prevention, surveillance and containment.
There are a few roadblocks in the use of drones for transportation and delivery like the maintenance of ultra-cold temperatures for storing some of the Covid-19 vaccines creating logistical challenges. Even blood and serum are to be kept at specific temperatures. Another major roadblock is the lack of understanding in cases and scenarios where drone technology can add value in combating Covid 19.
The global medical drones market and the use of this technology is still in its nascent stage, amorphous and directionless. At present, drones are limited to pilot projects and short term initiatives. The in-house manufacturing or the procurement and contracting mechanisms are major areas to be tackled under the framework of regulatory policies. The use of technology will be restricted unless a viable support system and enabling environment are built.
There will be a dire need for trained and skilled manpower for drone operations. Education in this technology is a must for drone operators, government entities, end-users and medical professionals. Only the thought-through policies of the government on the use and expansion of drone technology in the health sector and the integration with the existing cutting edge technologies will let one reap the maximum benefit to combat Covid 19 and only then the impact will be visible.