As the coronavirus pandemic is razing havoc in India, the central government is trying its best and turning to different and innovative means to combat the deadly virus despite what the mainstream media might tell us. And one of these methods includes replacing traditional delivery methods with drones to practice as much social distancing as possible to reduce the spread of the COVID-19.
Earlier this week, MoCA, the Ministry of Civil Aviation, has decided to allow over 20 companies, including Dunzo and Swiggy, to conduct BVLOS, Beyond Visual Line of Sight experimental flights UAVs, Unmanned aerial vehicles (1). Popularly they are also known as drones!
BVLOS operations refer to those drone operations that allow these unmanned aerial vehicles to travel beyond the pilot’s visual range. It would allow them to cover greater distances as they control these drones via the onboard instruments’ collected data.
The MoCA has allowed the eligible companies to perform tests in a controlled environment at present. However, there is hope that these operations will be completed in full swing by the end of the year. As per reports, the officials will also release proper guidelines to businesses and individuals (2).
Drone Delivery in India
Before the nation decided to experiment with drone deliveries, other nations were already using them for vaccines, including Ghana in West Africa. Even big tech giants such as Amazon have plans to carry out their deliveries via these self-flying drones.
It is also worth highlighting that Ghana is home to one of the globe’s most significant vaccine drone delivery networks. It has used the US’s Zipline services to deliver vaccines in Africa under the COVAX initiative (3).
There are many advantages of utilizing drones for delivering food, medicines, and vaccines, as drones could ensure the availability of these materials even in the most remote parts of the country, including those regions that lack proper logistics and transportation facilities.
There is a huge opportunity in the country to establish the system. And for its full potential, India can use up to 5 unmanned aerial vehicles per district with a range of over 80 km.
According to Mark Martin, CEO of an aviation consultancy firm (4), ‘India has over 718 districts. The country can deploy over 3,600 drones to distribute an effective vaccine weight via each flight to get over 15k kg vaccine distribution capacity in a single day.’
However, to implement these methods, India first needs to overcome several obstacles to realize this opportunity. India needs to place a proper system and plan to overcome logistical issues that come with flying drones in the country. For instance, Indian rooftops often do not offer a proper landing zone for drones. Another issue is that power lines that are still not underground in most of India can also pose an issue to the operation.
Moreover, the monsoon season in India may also affect drone trials. Besides, officials need to consider several factors, including national safety, security, logistics, privacy concerns while testing these operations.
The Age of Contactless Customers
MoCA stated that BVLOS trials would help build a framework for future drone deliveries and other significant applications using drones. It is a step towards making home delivery via drones a reality.
Senior MoCA officials have told Hindustan Times (5) that BVLOS drone operations’ draft guidelines will be open for scrutiny by the end of 2021.
Last month, MoCA granted conditional approval to the Telangana government to deliver COVID-19 vaccines via drones on a trial basis. It has also granted similar permission to the ICMR, Indian Council of Medical Research, to conduct a feasibility study of coronavirus vaccine delivery via drones in collaboration with the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur.
MoCA has constituted BVLOS BEAM, Experiment Assessment, and Monitoring Committee to undertake experimental drone flights. After that, the DGCA, Directorate General of Civil Aviation, issued an EOI, Expression of Interest, in May 2019 (6).
The committee had evaluated over 34 EOIs, and it selected 20 for experimental flights. Consequently, Tuesday, MoCA issued an order granting permission or conditional exemption to these selected consortia to perform experiment flights for a year or until further orders.
Here is the list of selected companies for experimental BVLOS drone operations:
- AIDAT, Aerospace Industry Development Association of Tamil Nadu
- ANRA Consortium A
- ANRA Consortium B
- Asteria Aerospace Pvt. Ltd.
- AutoMicroUAS Aerotech Pvt. Ltd.
- Centillion Networks Pvt. Ltd.
- ClearSky Flight Consortium
- Dhaksha Unmanned Systems Pvt. Ltd.
- Dunzo Air Consortium
- Marut Dronetech Pvt. Ltd.
- Sagar Defence Engineering Pvt. Ltd.
- Saubika Consortium
- Skylark Drones & Swiggy
- ShopX Omnipresent Consortium
- Spicejet Ltd.
- Terradrone Consortium B
- The Consortium
- Throttle Aerospace Systems Pvt. Ltd.
- Value Thought IT Solutions Pvt. Ltd.
- Virginia Tech India
Click here to read the full public notice.
In 2014, a local eatery in Mumbai used a drone for delivering a pizza as a test flight, making it the first city in India to adopt high-tech in food delivery (7).
Soon after unlocking the country’s economy after a nationwide lockdown, DCA granted approvals to food tech giants such as Swiggy, Dunzo, and Zomato to initiate testing BVLOS operation drones for deliveries.
In such operations., drones fly without a visual line of sight on the aircraft at all. Instead, pilots operate it via RPS, Remote Pilot Station, or GCS, Ground Control Station instruments.
A Dunzo spokesperson stated that they are working with local authorities in Telangana to commence drone trails for medicine delivery (8).
Ministry officials have stated that drones for last-mile deliveries will grow more abundant in the pandemic-hit world.
Even though in India’s recently announced norms of drone operations, BVLOS operations for goods delivery do not have the permit. Early in March, a senior MoCA official stated that as drones become the new normal, conventional air cargo movement has to dovetail itself with first-mile or last-mile connectivity.
According to Vandana Aggarwal, MoCA’s senior economic advisor (9), ‘there are some sectors of aviation, particularly in cargo, that require growth as drones become the new norm. The civil aviation ministry may shortly put rules and a platform to make air cargo grow.’
The Unmanned Aircraft System Rules, 2021, notified on 12th March, spells out the drone usage terms for businesses and individuals. It also lays out rules for research terms, testing, products, and their import. The rules allow drones to conduct surveys for security, photography, information gathering purposes, surveillance operations, and disaster management.
But, Amber Dubey, MoCA joint secretary and drones division head (10), states that the BVLOS operations’ draft guidelines will come by the end of 2021. He stated that consortia would need to submit test results and proof of concept to DGCA for scrutinization after conducting the test flights. After that, it will issue draft guidelines for public feedback before issuing the notifications, expected to be issued by the end of 2021.
According to a DGCA official, the upcoming monsoon season and winter fog in certain parts of the country may affect the trial flights. One can’t rush these trials as it has data security, national security, safety, and privacy concerns.
Chirag Sharma, the CEO, and Co-founder of a Delhi-based firm, Drone Destination Pvt Ltd, told HT (11) that considering their autonomous capabilities will play a crucial role in last-mile logistics, especially in hard-to-access regions. He further added that we could use heavy-lift drones with a payload-carrying capacity of more than 5 kg to transport food, essential supplies, blood samples, and medicines.
Sharma believes that a restaurant to home food delivery is still further away from an Indian UAS operations perspective. India will need drone ports in the future to allow large-scale drone-powered logistics.
Several delivery entities such as Swiggy, Zomato, and Dunzo will conduct government trials in the upcoming months. Sharma adds that once we adopt learnings from the trials and place SOPs, standard operating procedures, India will start seeing a real-time implementation in the forthcoming two to three years.
Vaccine Delivery in India via Drones
The Indian UIP Universal Immunization Program is among the largest globally in terms of vaccine quantities, beneficiaries number, geographical diversity, and spread, and conducted immunization sessions. UIP vaccinates 26.4 million infants, more than 30 million pregnant women annually with a vaccine logistics network of over 27k cold chain points, over 76k pieces of cold chain equipment, over 700 refrigerated vans, more than 55k cold chain handlers, and more than 2.5 million health workers (12).
With a diverse geographical setup and vivid socio-demographic profile, India needs to ramp up its immunization coverage. As per a 2015-16 report from The National Family Health Survey, only 62% of children up to one year old are fully immunized with all basic vaccines.
The factors which limit vaccination coverage include isolated and large mobile populations that are difficult to reach and low demand among misinformed and under-informed people who fear side effects and are under the influence of anti-vaccination messages.
While there are several levels of immunization supply chain, the ‘last mile’ holds the most significance, not only in keeping the cold chain but also in terms of cost.
It has become essential for India to leverage emerging technologies to improve timely and quality health care for its citizens to balance its resources and the urgent public health requirements. UAS, Unmanned Aerial Systems, show great promise to bridge the health care divide in the era of emerging transportation.
Notably, today, the world uses drones to carry vaccines, blood products, and other health items, cutting the trip time traditional delivery methods take from hours to mere minutes, enabling less expensive and more reliable transport.
According to the estimations of Matternet, after a 900k USD investment, each drone flight will cost an average of 0.24 USD (13). For instance, Ghana used drones to deliver more than 11k vaccine doses within three days of arriving there, representing 13% of its total vaccines administered in that time.
If India successfully scales it, it can strengthen its Universal Immunization program. India can efficiently use drones for its tribal and hilly terrains where stock-outs are often experienced. It can also help bolster India’s ongoing efforts to control the morbidities and mortalities pandemic as it continues to fight against the coronavirus.
The systems placed in the short term to support drone delivery of vaccines can be essential healthcare infrastructure for India in the long term, delivering a variety of life-saving goods.
The Global Drone Package Delivery Market
There are projections that the drone delivery market will grow from 528 million USD in 2020 to 39,013 million USD by 2030, growing at a 53.8% CAGR in the decade (14).
The rising demand for fast delivery, amendments in regulatory frameworks to encourage drone package delivery, and increasing demand or lower carbon emissions are some of the contributing factors fueling the market growth.
The coronavirus pandemic has created short-term and long-term structural changes. Consequently, the e-commerce sector is witnessing a sluggish growth in new online categories like home care and groceries. It has enabled suppliers to adopt autonomous means like robots and drones to deliver the customer with minimum human involvement.
For example, UPS, a multinational firm for package delivery based in the United States, has forayed into a collaboration with Wingcoper GmbH, a German drone manufacturer, to hasten the adoption of aerial drones for contactless delivery (15).
Several prominent and emerging good delivery technologies are laying a critical role in the coronavirus pandemic.
Will Drone Replace Delivery Executives?
As reports started emerging about India adopting drones for contactless deliveries, there have also been questions about whether it will replace conventional delivery executives with drones. While it is highly possible, various operations may not require eliminating delivery executives from the equation.
The delivery companies may employ a way wherein drones could transport food, medicine, and other essentials to a central location. After that, delivery executives will transport them to the appropriate addresses (16).
We have realized thousands of applications of drones amid the pandemic, and now they are about to change the way we do business as we have started to invent the best applications of it. They are a transformative tech and offer several unique opportunities for government, business, military, and public safety.
The drones’ slow adoption and delay in corporate drone programs were mostly because of the government’s regulations. In the past, the Indian government had taken a very conservative position and slowed its adoption because of valid concerns about protecting national security and interest.
Our research estimates that every industry and every business will see the impact of drones in the next decade.
While the Indian government has started to open to drones to deliver essential goods such as food, vaccines, and medicines to limit human exposure in coronavirus prone areas, we have high hopes that we will see disruptions in the last-mile delivery with drones in the long run.