Sanjeevan Bharat, an ambitious UK government-funded project undertaken by Pune’s KEM Hospital Research Center in association with city-based start-up Volar Alta, which aims to use drones to deliver essential medical items in remote villages, is all set for its launch on Wednesday at Manchar in the district.

Starting with the first drone delivery in Manchar, the trials are focused on laying the foundation for a more structured and scalable drone delivery network that will improve access not only to vital healthcare supplies, but also essential food items.

The project aims to demonstrate last-mile delivery of vaccines and other medical essentials using electric battery-powered autonomous drones to primary and community health centers in rural regions of Maharashtra.

Funds to the tune of £ 70,000 (approximately over Rs 60 lakh) were allocated over a period of three and a half months from December 16, 2021 to March 31, 2022. On successful completion of the trials, the technology will be implemented in a few select primary health centers in the Manchar and Junnar belt. This would also reduce transportation-related carbon emissions, KEM Hospital authorities said.

While Volar Alta, a Pune-based provider of drone services, will provide the end-to-end infrastructure required for drone-based deliveries, KEMHRC will be responsible for stocking the essential medical items and will be instrumental in establishing and adhering to clinical protocols . The project has been supported by the Maharashtra State Innovation Society.

A major hurdle to adopting drone logistics is high costs per delivery and lower capacity of range, payload and endurance. While the latter is being worked upon by most drone manufacturers, globally these drones can still do just one delivery per trip, because they have to return to base, get recharged or refuelled, and then take off again for the next delivery.

The project will now use Volar Alta’s technology that enables these drone providers to conduct multiple deliveries per flight. “We do this by providing a drone-agnostic custom storage payload which is cold-chain enabled and can hold between 3-5 packages at a time, each one released at a specific geo-location. This model not only makes drone deliveries more cost-effective but also optimizes the resources required to complete one trip, ”says Niharika Kolte Alekar, Founder and CEO of Volar Alta Private Limited.

The project has three participating partners, including experts in healthcare and airspace management. “The Sanjeevan Bharat program will be a gamechanger for reaching populations in difficult terrains, especially hilly and tribal areas,” said Dr Sanjay Juvekar, professor and head of the Vadu Rural Health program at KEMHRC Pune.

Routinely implementing drone technology requires robust evidence in terms of applicability and scalability. We are working to create evidence for the implementers, said Rutuja Patil, research scientist at the Vadu Rural Health Program.

“Together, these partners will not only build the required ecosystem to facilitate drone-based deliveries, but also showcase short and long-range drone-based deliveries in a hub-and-spoke model to assess the efficacy of drone-based logistics in the healthcare and food distribution segments, “said Deependra Singh Kushwah, CEO, Maharashtra State Innovation Society.”

“By establishing an on-demand logistics network, we are building the foundation for drone-based deliveries of a broader range of items. The idea is to bring drones of different makes and capacities on one common platform to serve different kinds of needs of the healthcare and food distribution systems, ”Kolte Alekar added.

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