WEF tests drones for infrastructure leapfrog in India


Medicine from the Sky in Arunachal Pradesh is a six-month project to analyse the response of the state’s healthcare system when integrated with drones. Its potential to connect regions without conventional road deliveries is an indication of where leapfrogging may take us.  

Following the spread of mobile phones taking communications and internet commerce into remote regions without conventional telephone infrastructure, the infrastructure industry has been aware of how valuable technological leapfrogs might be. The World Economic Forum’s Medicines from the Sky project is an illustration of what they might look like.

Medicine from the Sky is a flagship initiative that launched in Arunachal Pradesh, north-east India this month. It will document how health systems in remote parts of the state respond to the integration of drone-based supply chains. After numerous confidence-building pilot schemes across the country, the Arunachal Pradesh initiative focuses on a more comprehensive provision.

Rural areas will benefit from drone deliveries for basic healthcare needs, as they provide regular services for vaccines; iron, folic acid, nutrition supplements; prophylactic and mass drug administration; diagnostic sample collection; emergency medications and blood and blood products.
The programme will also examine survivability, scalability and sustainability of using drones this extensively, and test drone platforms to understand the ability of available technologies.

Vignesh Santhanam, lead on aerospace and drones at the World Economic Forum, explained: “In mid-2021, we undertook a field study in Arunachal Pradesh, along with the Public Health Foundation of India, to learn more about the local health distribution system, disease profile and the nature of the terrain. Traversing the Seppa-Bameng belt by road, in particular, made it evident that drones were an absolute necessity.

“Through our learnings in Telangana, we are looking to stress-test our systems in Arunachal Pradesh under the liberalised drone regime while factoring in economic principles from the point of initiation. For this purpose, we will work on two bell-weather districts – East Kameng and Lower Subansiri – over an extended time frame and supplement ongoing central initiatives with data and examples while empowering local governments with drone-based solutions. We are also planning awareness campaigns for local youth and students.”

In a first of its kind approach to raise awareness among rural youth, the District Collector of East Kameng has called on all heads of participating villages to nominate “drone ambassadors” in parallel with an essay-writing competition on drones for village school students.

While the development of drone supply chains on this scale is unprecedented, its potential for connecting rural and remote regions across the world where conventional transport is difficult. In the long term it also represents a means of reducing congestion as small deliveries can be targeted more directly to their destination, without taking up road miles.

Drones may also provide a more resilient transport mechanism for regions where landslides and floods have often impacted on the ‘last mile’ delivery of necessary supplies.

Pravimal Abhishek Polumatla, district magistrate, in East Kameng said: “East Kameng district has a hilly terrain which makes it difficult to access interior areas, particularly during the monsoon season. I am sure drone-based drug delivery will be a game-changer in strengthening access to healthcare in such remote areas. I hope the project will give us the answers and clarity for large-scale implementation.

“By delivering medical supplies much faster than road-based logistics, the drone network would serve the remote areas by offering access to diagnostics, essential medicines and vaccines. We are hoping this will reduce out-of-pocket expenditure for patients”