Can drones deliver life saving medicines to remote NE locations?
Drone technology has been around for a while, in fact, even before man boarded one of those heavier than air flying machines, it was one of those unmanned versions that took flight in balloons and gliders. Hitler used it effectively by building V2 bombers which flew across the English Channel and bombed the English. It did not have much of accuracy, but it was unmanned. Unmanned gives a lot of advantage as opposed to a manned flight. Humans have always found military use for any new tech, in fact, in some cases, it was military which laid the building blocks for many new technologies. These later were adopted and adapted for civilian use. Drone tech is one such which, these COVID-19 times has found great use of drones in many sectors. Areas, where this drone tech is being tried out, is growing every day.
In Northeast India
Using drones for medicine delivery is not a new concept at all. In fact, Squadron leader Varsh Kuketi (retd) CEO and co-founder of AutoMicroUAS Aerotech suggested this sometime back to all and sundry at the Ministry at Delhi and at state level to Assam and other states. Covid-19 forced the world to increased use of drones. Certainly, medicine delivery is not one of them. It is mostly, photo op spray and keeping track of people who violate lookdown (internet called them covidiots). Photo op spray has been mentioned by me on purpose, why so? We shall talk about it in another article. Coming to the topic perse, medicine delivery through drones was tried and demonstrated in upper Shillong Meghalaya way back in 2011 by Varsha’s company. If you search for “Long Range MicroUAV” you should come across it on the youtube. Logical question that one would ask is, if it was suggested some time ago what happened? Well, answer to that will involve me going back the beginning of India, say pre-partition and how English left us with a system that involved us with the tape that was designed to keep the English colonies under check.
Life can really get tough in the North-east; city blokes and plains people can’t fathom how tough it can be. Imagine this, you are in a hill village is close to a big town, the capital of that state which has everything including food and medicine, doctors, and hospitals. You can see that town from your small little village. Your village has a resident doctor and a weekly run to the town where the local shops stock up from and sell it to the villagers. Village also grows a lot of its supplies and surplus is sold back to the market back at the capital. One day it rains insistently and the only bridge that connects the capital gets washed off. This little hamlet is cut off from the rest of the world. This village is ‘Home Alone’. The plot I have chosen perfectly fits Gangtok-Sicheygaon-Sangtong.
This is not some plot that was made up for this write-up. This is what happens in many small towns in the NE. Being cut off for long has been the way of life for hill people since the beginning of civilization. Comes with it, is issues that hey have accepted forever, some kind of fait accompli. Things which rest of the world takes it for granted, things like, hospitals, access to medicines, not standard medicine but lifesaving medicines, access to blood in case of those who need blood or Intravenous liquids to keep people alive. Lack of these things meant loss of life. This was fait accompli for these hardy people of the hills.
Indian Air Force does carry out Casualty Evacuation (CASEVAC) missions through helicopters, but these few and far between and often cancelled due to bad weather. Whenever a CASEVAC mission is received IAF evacuates every time, within the weather constraints ofcourse. There are many a lives lost who couldn’t sail through the time required for evacuation through helicopters or reception of proper medicines and or other lifesaving drugs.
It is not typical to hills alone, remote parts of the world face similar issues. Most of the African Continent fall into that category. Given the vastness of the land, the sparseness of population and poor connectivity makes Africa go through similar predicament, probably even worse than what remote parts of India goes through. Now, we have this problem of connectivity and a potential to be cut off if nature so chooses.
Cut to, what is happening in the world of drones. IoT (Internet of things) miniaturization of electronics, Nanotech, power of processing, strap on systems are coming in and reducing the size of things while increasing its potency so to say. Aeroplane without humans in them were flying higher faster and farther.
Companies like the AutoMicroUAS Aerotech found this issue and married solution to it. They were not the only ones to do it, some companies tried it at Uganda too, successfully at that. However, solution that Uganda adopted may not suit for NE for a simple reason that real estate needed for ground equipment to conduct drone operations and approach required for the drone to carry out an approach to the landing at the drone field may not be available in most cases owing to terrain and visibility.
A small form factor with maybe 2 kgs payload, with good wind penetration and wind handling capability with a range of 5-20 km is what is need of the hour. Expanding from there to a larger payload and longer ranges could be explored later.
Let's talk a little bit about the medicine delivery drone technology. This technology involves a vehicle which could either be a fuel engine driven or an electrical motor-driven, a flight controller, payload bay and its release mechanism. On the ground side a launch and a recovery mechanism. Broadly, that is all to it.
Let’s fall back to our plot. The Gangtok-Sicheygaon-Sangtong plot. Bipul lives at Sangtong, runs a small grocery-cum-medicine shop where she sells daily grocery and general-purpose medicines like pain killers, paracetamol etc. Pre-monsoon showers have hit Gangtok, Teesta is flowing with great fury owing to cloud burst over Mangan. Bipul was not worried, this happens every year, this too shall pass, so she thinks. Her house is leaking from two places, a new two places that missed the mending work that she carried out during the summer. She is survived by her father and a younger brother who does odd jobs during the off-season, and during the tourist season? Well, he is a good guide who goes to earn his living by entertaining guests coming to Gangtok from the plains.
It is nighttime 01:30 and the rain does not show any sign of stopping. If anything, it has picked up even more, generally when it rains winds die down a little. This time around howling winds is making rain even more sinister. In the valley, especially along the valley, if the wind blows it makes an eerie noise. Almost like a loud factory whistle, just a little low pitched and much, much louder.
Her brother is not home yet. Owing to off-season he went to work at the local quarry that belongs to their uncle. He doesn’t pick up an axe or do manual job there, he is kind of a supervisor of the labours. That makes his job even more difficult, he cannot leave before the last worker has left the site, tools accounted for and the site closed for the day. She thought that’s why probably the delay, but then it has never been so late for him to get home, ever.
Her father and Bipul launch a recovery mission, they go looking for Rinzhing, her brother. Without much difficulty they find him, few hundred metres from the quarry, sheltered in someone’s house with a huge bandage around his leg. Further inquiry reveals that the boy happens to slip en-route his walk back home owing to poor light and slush due to rain. His leg is swollen, and he is writhing in pain.
Bipuls’s father and Bipul take him home in their vehicle. Thankfully, road to Gangtok is still open, after feeding him and giving him a pain killer when they load him up in the vehicle, they get a news that Sicheygaon Bridge has just got washed away. Gangtok is just 2 km from Sangtong as the crow flies. Gloom falls over them.
Rhinzing is lucky, uncle Dan is home from Gangtok where he has a clinic. He is a known orthopaedic at Gangtok. Worked at AIIMS in Delhi and other known hospitals in his prime, he has come back home, to his village at Sangtong to live a quiet but an active life.
Uncle Dan looks at the injury and assesses that it can be fixed with a minor operation, he has a small Minor OT (Operation Theatre) at his home dispensary. By now day breaks and it is 0500 AM in the morning. Rain did die down a bit, Gangtok is clearly visible too, through the rain.
Uncle Dan makes a call to the hospital, consults other senior doctors. There is no time to waste anymore. He needs to perform the operation else young Rhinzing will stand to lose his leg due to gangrene, which seems to be setting in. Only thing he is short off is, a couple of bags of blood. Boy is O+ve, 37% of the world is O+ve but alas none of the residents of Sangtong are O+Ve. A quick call to Hospital confirms that they have the blood. But how will the blood cross River Teesta that is the big question now.
Rhinzing’s friend Sam comes to their rescue. Sam works at Delhi with AutoMicroUAS, he is here for a demo of how a drone can save lives to the state govt. It’s micro category drone with a total weight of 5kgs including 2 kgs of payload that it can carry. He flies it to the hospital on the location sent on Whatsapp by the doctor. Hospital puts two bags of blood and Rhinzing is saved. Rest is history.
Moral of the story is, an incident such as this is not uncommon in places which are not well connected. Sometimes it means loss of lives or limb. A simple non-availability of a strip of antibiotic has meant people losing lives in the hills. People have, like I said, in the past have accepted it as fait accompali. They need not anymore. Small drone station set up at vantage points connecting various villages means that people who are in need for live-saving things can get it on time.
This is not some rocket science. In fact, CEO AutoMicroUAS told me that, seeing is believing, she can anytime go and give a demo to make-believe people who matter. So that these facilities can be set up and precious lives can be saved.
Gp Capt MJ Augustine Vinod (retd) Vishist Sewa Medal, was commissioned into the Fighter stream on 13 Jun 92 and retired in 2019. He has flown Mirage 2000, MiG 21, Kiran HPT 32 and Airbus A320 aircraft. He has over 3500 hrs of flying experience on these aircraft. His last appointment was Director Air Defence at Air Headquarters Vayu Bhavan, where he started the counter UAS work which is taking shape at IAF level. He is a frequent speaker on aviation and drones. His drone was adjudged by the IAF as the best innovation of the year for 2018 by Air Chief BS Dhanoa.