In February 2022, TechEagle, a Gurugram-based Deep Tech startup, entered into a partnership with the Himachal Pradesh government to deliver medicines and essential items via their drones (aircraft) to remote corners of the state.
Exhibiting the capabilities of their Made-in-India Hybrid e-VTOL Drone, the startup delivered medicines in the Tirthan valley from a primary health centre (PHC) to a sub-centre.
“The proof of concept (PoC) that we did was a total success. We delivered medicines in -5°C weather marked by gusty and heavy winds of more than 25 kmph. With a top speed of 120 kmph, this particular drone is designed to carry a payload of 3 kg. We delivered our medicines in 9 minutes via our drone, while it took 1.5 hours by road to cover the same distance,” claims Vikram Singh Meena, the CEO and Founder of TechEagle, speaking to The Better India.
Following the successful PoC, TechEagle remains in regular discussions with the Himachal Pradesh government to identify locations and areas where drone delivery of medicines and vaccines needs to be implemented at large. Once that mapping process is done, they will continue working with the State government to enable primary healthcare centres (PHCs) and district hospitals to deliver their services to remote corners of the state, adds Vikram.
Speaking to the press during the announcement of this partnership, Mukesh Repaswal, Director, Department of Information Technology, Himachal Pradesh said, “The drone trials will help ascertain the advantages and benefits that Himachal can drive from the use of drones and help the State plan areas of intervention for extensive utilisation of drones for provision of improved service delivery to its citizens. We are looking forward to working along with TechEagle in successfully demonstrating the advantages of drones in reaching far-flung areas of the State.”
Logistics of Healthcare
Born in Kishanganj village, Tonk district, which lies approximately 150 km from Jaipur, Vikram grew up in humble surroundings. Even today, the village does not have adequate road connectivity. The son of a government school teacher and homemaker, he remembers growing up in a mud house until 2009, following which his parents built a small two-room home.
“We would travel four to five kilometres to study at a school in a nearby town called Banetha. This town had a lot of shops. One of my fondest memories is of my cousin brother and I buying kirana store items from there and selling them in our village for a slightly higher price to earn our pocket money. We ran this business for a couple of months,” recalls Vikram.
However, what truly stuck with him from his childhood was seeing extended family members and close relatives dying from snake bites with no access to medical treatment. These events left an indelible impression on a young Vikram and it always remained at the back of his mind.
After completing high school, he secured admission into the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)-Kanpur, where he would go on to do his B.Tech in chemical engineering. His passion, however, lay in the world of aviation and social service. Before establishing TechEagle in July 2015 (third year in college), he was engaged in aviation-related research and development, participating in many national and international competitions.
During his time at IIT-Kanpur, he won several awards, including one from the venerated US government-run NASA. In addition, he wanted to establish a social startup/initiative on campus providing free coaching and education to students from low-income households. But he ended up focusing more on his passion for aviation, particularly drone technology.
The motivation behind starting TechEagle came while preparing for a competition in the United States called SAE Aerodesign, where participants from the world over would design, develop and demonstrate a drone that can drop a certain payload to a designated location.
“We needed to do a lot of paperwork for visas, passports and other such documentation which required travelling about 100 km to Lucknow. Given our capabilities, we thought why not build a drone that could solve these last-mile logistical problems. Besides thinking about how drones can transport parcels and documents from Kanpur to Lucknow, I also envisioned them transporting critical medicines to remote corners of the country. That’s when we realised the need to solve this larger problem of logistics for healthcare, food delivery, parcels, etc,” he says.
Diving into the problem and speaking to a couple of large logistics companies, Vikram and his friends understood that first-mile and last-mile delivery were major pain points. In July 2015, TechEagle was born and his efforts went towards building their first drone. In 2018, they organised their first delivery in Lucknow with a local food delivery startup, OnlineKaKa. They even collaborated with Zomato for 1.5 years, doing a lot of trials and PoCs with them.
Building the Hybrid e-VTOL Drone
“When we were at IIT-Kanpur, we were building either rotary-wing aircraft (multi-copter/helicopter kind of drone) or fixed-wing aircraft/drone because IIT-Kanpur had its own runway. We had the luxury of using that runway to take off and land our aircraft. That’s where we built our long range delivery aircraft. But when we first moved our operations to Lucknow, we didn’t have the luxury of landing and taking off the aircraft in the city,” recalls Vikram.
That’s when they decided to build a rotary-wing drone given how it generates lift from its rotors which requires a lot of power. But this meant they couldn’t achieve long-range (distance) for the drone.
So, either they could have long-range or a vertical takeoff-landing capability.
“This is why we began developing the Hybrid e-VTOL. The propulsion system here is basically hybrid. How does it work? It takes off like a helicopter from a 5m x 5m area, while the aircraft itself is 3m x 3m in size. Once it reaches a height of mission, it converts automatically to the fixed-wing mode to cross larger distances. The Hybrid VTOL in operation right now can carry a 3 kg payload and travel 100 km in the fixed-wing mode like a passenger aircraft,” he explains.
When the drone needs to land and deliver the item, it converts back to helicopter mode and lands like one, drops or releases the package as per the situation and comes back to the point of origin automatically. This entire drone operation does not need to be controlled by a pilot, who just has to monitor the entire flight from his or her ground control station screen.
The drone is in continuous communication with TechEagle’s ground control station over a ‘redundant system’ allowing it to execute scheduled failsafe or fail-operative routines.
“The drone has ultimate fail-safe features. Say, it’s flying in a fixed-wing mode like a passenger aircraft. If something happens, it automatically converts to helicopter mode, flies, completes the mission and lands safely. If communication has broken, it works with multiple redundancies and layers of communication. It works on a cellular network (4G) or radio frequency (RF), but if everything fails, the drone has an independent parachute to safely land and touch down without damaging it. Our Hybrid E-VTOL has multiple layers of safety,” claims Vikram.
When TechEagle were developing this drone, they got a lot of pushback from Central agencies like the DGCA, MHA and MoD. They would not allow the Hybrid E-VTOLs to fly and the startup had to prove at every step the redundancy, safety and reliability of their drones. From the designing to the production phase, it took about 1.5 years to develop this drone and it underwent very rigorous testing covering all the necessary parameters, he recalls.
In November 2021, TechEagle partnered with the Meghalaya government and Smart Village Movement (SVM) to carry out India’s first hybrid e-VTOL drone delivery of lifesaving medicines. There, the startup demonstrated the drone’s capability of transporting medicines from a district hospital in Nongstoin, West Khasi Hills district, to the PHC (primary healthcare centre) in the remote Maweit village. By road, it would take 4 hours to go one way even though the PHC is just 25 km away. With the drone, they delivered medicines in less than 25 minutes.
“Mind you, this isn’t flat ground. The Nongstoin district hospital stood 700 metres below the PHC in terms of altitude. There was a climb of 700 metres within the same 25 km flight also. So, it was challenging terrain with high wind speeds. We delivered the items successfully and are now working with the Government of Meghalaya to take this project to the next level. We did a similar PoC in Nagaland, where we covered a distance of 40 km between two hills (a community health centre on one side and a PHC on the other) with another hill of 1.5km height in between in just 28 minutes, while the distance between the two points by road would have taken 8 hours to cover,” he says.
In all these states, the plan is to create a network where TechEagle’s drones can connect district hospitals to PHCs and CHCs for forward and reverse logistics. While coming back to base, these drones can bring back medical samples as well for diagnostic purposes.
TechEagle is currently working with other hyper-local companies to deliver food and groceries in urban environments, major e-commerce companies for last-mile delivery and maritime companies for transport of medicines, small equipment and documents from shore to rig. These are some of the civilian applications they are targeting. In the defence sector, they worked with the Indian Army to develop custom solutions for logistical needs in difficult terrains like Ladakh.
“These drones can operate under severe conditions. We will launch another drone this year capable of carrying 10X more payload than what we’re doing right now, and 3X in terms of distance covered. We will be launching a lot of projects in the next few months, while also seeking further external funding. In September 2021, TechEagle raised USD 500,000 in a seed round led by India Accelerator (which equates to about Rs 3.69 crore),” says Vikram.
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)