In Focus

Medicine From the Sky: Using drones to expand primary healthcare access in rural India


In Telangana, the drones ensure timely access to medical supplies and act as a life-saving technology

Snakebites are a significant issue in rural Telangana, and timely access to long-tail medicines is critical. Obtaining the anti-venom is time-sensitive, and if treatment is not available within the first hour after the snakebite, also called the golden hour, it often leads to fatalities.

The Medicine From the Sky (MFTS) programme in India’s Telangana state programme explored the unique scenarios, where drones could ensure timely access to medical supplies and act as a life-saving technology. And it has succeeded.

The MFTS programme pioneered last-mile medical drone deliveries in the developing world and has been instrumental in demonstrating how the drone sector can flourish, given liberal policy reforms, says the latest report of the World Economic Forum (WEF) released Tuesday.

The MFTS  programme in India was commissioned at the India Economic Summit in 2019. 

The programme was aimed at using drone technology to extend urban-grade healthcare to the remotest areas and ensure that “nobody is left behind”. Since a number of stakeholders had a secondary view of the technology and only a limited perception of its benefits, one of the goals was to measure programming and confidence-building in the ecosystem.

The report says that when the programme was initiated, India’s low altitude aviation was governed under the Civil Aviation Requirements for drones under the Aircraft Act of 1934. Over the course of eight community deliberations on the subject, a limited field demonstration of blood delivery was conducted in Hyderabad during the Wings India event in March 2020 in the presence of the MFTS community and key decision-makers from the government.

In September 2021, after numerous intergovernmental collaborations involving MFTS core members and policy liberalization under the New Drone Rules 2021, the 45-day MFTS trial finally took shape. During the programme, eight participating drone consortia conducted long-range temperature-controlled vaccine deliveries in rural Telangana. 

The goal for the MFTS programme was to replicate urban-grade healthcare in rural areas and address unique scenarios that affect local populations. For example, snakebites are a significant issue in rural Telangana, and therefore timely access to long-tail medicines is critical.

Why Telangana

The report says that in the state, it was possible to commission a multistakeholder community to take part in the programme due to the state’s public health infrastructure and the intent of the state’s leadership to integrate innovative technology to optimize healthcare. The state also had ongoing initiatives in telehealth.

Partnering with Apollo Hospitals HealthNet Global as a clinical representative in the programme significantly helped in identifying immediate questions and circumstances during the programme and in enabling vaccine and medicine availability, as well as monitoring the adherence of clinical protocols throughout the project.

On a social level, the Telangana population is open to and well-disposed to the use of technology. The local district government made it clear they would welcome the use of drones to support local planning and delivery.

The district of Vikarabad was commissioned due to its unique location. While largely rural, it was less than two hours by car from Hyderabad, the state’s capital.

The MFTS trials provide evidence of the advantages and potential of the technology, especially when combined with aviation policy changes. They provide a proof of concept not just of the technology but also the approach adopted, and serve as a model for implementation in the developing world, the report says.

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