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AIIMS, Bibinagar uses drones to transport samples for TB testing

In the remote Kondamadugu of Yadadri Bhuvanagiri district, individuals suspected of Tuberculosis (TB) infection face obstacles in reaching the district hospital for tests, either owing to a lack of awareness or inadequate transportation facilities.

This situation not only worsens their own health but also leads to inadvertent spread of the disease in the community. Recognising this issue, All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS-Bibinagar) has taken up a drone project aimed at transporting sputum samples from remote primary health centres (PHCs) to the TB units and transporting medicines from the units back to PHCs on return flights.

The samples are placed in an ice box in the drone by ASHA workers who have received training to operate the drones and are stationed at the PHC. Once the drone reaches the TB unit, trained staff take out the samples. “The samples have a shelf life of three to four days, but the drone reaches the TB unit within a few minutes of taking off from the PHC,” said an ASHA worker.

This drone project is part of the broader initiative sanctioned by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), titled ‘Feasibility Study on the Use of Drones in Transportation of Sputum Samples and Drugs under the National TB Elimination Programme among Tribal and Hilly Areas of Yadadri Bhuvanagiri District of Telangana.’

The drones, which arrived at AIIMS-Bibinagar in December last, underwent test flights from December 14. Regular drone operations to transport sputum samples began on January 3 this year, following approval from the District Medical and Health Officer (DMHO), the Police department and the Ministry of Civil Aviation. Executive director of AIIMS-Bibinagar Vikas Bhatia said the drone operations are managed by TSAW Drone Agency, Noida.

Three pilots, two drones
Currently, three drone pilots operate two drones, one with an 8-kg payload capacity and the other with 15 kg. Principal investigator of the project Bhushan Kamble said each drone has a range of approximately 60-70 km, after which the batteries need to be recharged.

The drones are currently linked to three PHCs in Bhuvanagiri district—Bollepally, Kondamadugu and Bommalaramaram—and are under the TB unit at Bhuvanagiri district hospital. These PHCs are 30-35 km from the hospital and the drones take about eight minutes to cover the distance. The PHCs in Varkatpally and Munipampula under the Ramannapet TB Unit are also part of the network.

Co-investigator of the project Vidya Ganji said they have successfully transported around 150 sputum samples until February 9, 2024, providing crucial assistance to TB-suspected villagers residing in outreach areas and thandas and sparing them unnecessary travel expenses and delays in TB diagnosis.

‘Drone Didis’
Three Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) workers from the connected PHCs have received training under the ‘Drone Didi’ programme at Professor Jayashankar Telangana Agricultural University, Hyderabad, in collaboration with the Marut Drone Training Academy.

Anita, an ASHA worker from Kondamadugu PHC, said: “We underwent a comprehensive nine-day training programme at the academy, and upon completion, we obtained a drone flying licence from the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) valid for ten years.”

Vikas Bhatia said experienced pilots are currently operating the drones, but the ASHA workers are assisting them in order to assume control in the near future. “The ICMR aims to extend this project over the next few months, connecting more remote villages with TB units or District TB centres, utilising drone technology to maximise the benefits of healthcare services for rural and marginalised communities and achieve the goals of ‘Viksit Bharat’ and ‘TB Mukt Bharat’,” he added. The Hindu

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