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Telangana, India to trial drones for COVID-19 vaccine delivery

The Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) and the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) have granted a conditional exemption to the state government of Telangana to conduct experimental beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) drone flights to deliver COVID-19 vaccines.

Authorities have exempted the state from Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) rules. This is part of India’s “constant endeavour to enhance the scope of drone usage in the country and assist the nation to fight the COVID-19 pandemic”, according to a press release. The BVLOS trials will help create the regulatory framework for drone deliveries and other major applications.

Last month, the Telangana government was granted a conditional exemption to conduct the experimental delivery of vaccines within the visual line of sight (VLOS) range using drones. To accelerate the drone deployment process to formulate application-based models, the grant has been extended to BVLOS. The trials may commence by end of this month. The exemption shall be valid for one year from the date of approval of the SOP or until further orders, whichever is earlier.

Earlier this month, 20 consortia were also granted permission to conduct BVLOS experimental drone flights. The press release outlined the conditions for the drone flights. Each consortium is required to develop and submit documents, including standard operating procedures (SOP) for the operations and SOP to coordinate with Air Traffic Control (ATC) and the Indian Air Force (IAF) in normal situations and contingencies such as command and control (C2) lost-link.

The maximum permitted height for drone operations is 400 feet above ground level (AGL), and an energy reserve of 15% of flight time should be available. Before the trial flights, each consortium should conduct a hazard identification and risk management (HIRM) workshop involving all stakeholders. The trials will be attempted only after all the risks are mitigated to an acceptable level of safety.

Further, drone pilots must hold a valid certificate of training and have sufficient experience in drone operations. A safe VLOS record of the drone operator and the remote pilot are mandatory requirements.

Drone operations shall be limited between local sunrise and sunset. Visual Meteorological Conditions (VMC) should prevail at take-off and landing sites. Weather limitations stipulated by the drone manufacturer shall be complied with.

The release also noted that the drones must satisfy the following requirements:

  • The drone should be a micro or small rotary-wing drone.
  • It should have a valid Drone Acknowledgement Number (DAN) and be capable of conducting autonomous operations.
  • It must be able to endure long-range operations, withstand adverse weather, and capable of transmitting identity and live trajectory information.
  • It should be capable of carrying out geofencing, return to home (RTH), and automatic flight termination.
  • It must be conspicuous with bright colours and flashing strobe lights. It should also have a 360-degrees collision avoidance system to avoid terrain and obstacles.
  • The drone requires a detect and avoid system (DAA) to detect and avoid manned and unmanned aircraft.
  • Display drone pilot to provide live trajectory, manned aircraft information, DAA information, and first-person-view (FPV), with visual and audio alerts.

Each consortium should establish basic UAS Traffic Management (UTM) infrastructure for the real-time management of the flights and provide situational awareness data to ATC and IAF units, as required. The government also stated that the permission for BVLOS trial flights does not extend to commercial purposes.

Finally, when the trials are complete, the state government is required to submit a detailed proof-of-concept to MoCA and DGCA. It is expected that the level of documentation and supporting justification would be proportionate to the level of complexity of the proposed BVLOS drone operation.

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