UNICEF Innovation Fund Graduate:
PROKURA INNOVATIONS, NEPAL
The UNICEF Innovation Fund is proud to see portfolio member, Prokura Innovations, graduate. they’ve come a long way – from numerous product iterations to deep diving into understanding their ecosystem better, strengthening their business model, and gearing up to take their solution to market. They’re now ready to collaborate at a larger scale – as they find new pathways to work with partners, investors, and the open-source community.
During the course of the investment period, our team at Prokura have built a drone capable of conducting a 60 km flight. The bidirectional drone can fly for about an hour on a single charge, carrying a payload of approximately 1.5kg. Prokura aims to transform the medical cargo delivery sector in Nepal, reaching the last-mile in rural communities. Originally, we did not dare to dream of such a long range flight for a locally made drone; however, after several encouraging sessions with UNICEF Innovation strategists and experts, we began gearing up for the design of the drone.
During the six month-long lockdown period brought upon by COVID-19, we faced several challenges especially in the procurement of the essential parts for the drone; however, we kept our spirits high albeit lack of resources and motivated ourselves to build the drone of our dreams. Taking into consideration the different factors like topography, climate and terrain that are unique to Nepal, we selected an aerodynamic model for the drone capable of flights at altitudes higher than 3500m, which is the elevation for most mountainous populations of Nepal. Our structural engineer designed the body of the model — a body capable of resisting the harsh conditions of air pressure, while also making it light enough to escape the clutches of gravity.
We ran several stress analysis tests to decide on a composite material, such that stronger and heavier material was used with higher stress areas, and a lighter material was used in low stress areas. We also focused on the deployment aspects of the drone for the very first time in this design, wherein the drone is designed to be assembled and deployed within minutes, if not seconds. We opted for a bike-like lock system that is a simple push and twist, instead of a time consuming nuts-and-bolts system.
The energy storage system is the most important part of any transport vehicle, pivotal in case of a battery driven electrical cargo drone. The battery system must be capable of a 60km flight while also powering other components in the drone. The problem becomes especially challenging as we need to take into consideration the weight associated with the battery system. We experimented with several battery systems and finally landed on a lipo/ li-ion hybrid wherein the power denso lipo was used during takeoff for the quad rotors and the high energy dense li-ion pack was used during the remainder of the flight. This dual power system also served as a redundancy feature that allows the drone to perform failsafes in case of failure of any one of the systems.
Our solution aims to impact people in rural areas of Nepal while transforming the approach to medical cargo delivery in the country. From a geographical standpoint, most rural areas in Nepal are mountainous regions with difficult terrain as well as climate. The Vertical Takeoff and Landing ( VTOL) drone we have built can provide extra power and stability as the extra rotors can assist the main rotor during a difficult situation like an aerial maneuver in a gust of wind.
From a technology perspective, medical drone delivery is needed most in the health supply chain of rural areas where the lack of medical supplies is most evident.
Additionally, in many emergency situations caused by natural disasters or bad climate, road transport becomes unusable for a long period, often lasting months; whereas drones can be used immediately after the initial situation has subsided.
Finally, from a business position, we aim to drastically lower the price of medical cargo transportation while still remaining profitable. We have worked on building a business model that will charge a fee of 5$ per delivery (each delivery being an average distance of 15km), which is at a competitive price compared to current modes of transportation.
Our journey of drones started as a part of the Minor Project during our time studying Engineering at university. We started out with multicopters, but later on realized that long range flights were not possible with multicopters, owing to heavy battery consumption. Considering higher speed and significantly less power consumption, we then switched to fixed wing planes. However, it brought new challenges during takeoff and landing, as it needed a launcher or a runway system. To alleviate the problem, four extra motors were added to the system adding the capability of Vertical Takeoff and Landing (VTOL) in the drone, leading to the rise of Hybrid VTOL fixed wing drones. The VTOL drone developed known as Bhangera was limited in payload capacity (500gm) and range (15Km). To tackle this problem, we designed Gauthali, a fixed wing drone capable of carrying 1.5 kg with a flight range of 60km.
Exposure to the open source community has helped us bring in ideas and contributions from the outside world. In our case, the contributions were very few and not much substantial. However, it opened doors to the possibility of significant assistance from collaborators and experts from multiple fields. Furthermore, there’s more to open source than just contributions via commits. To cite an example, we had not implemented an error handling mechanism in one of our systems and one of the contributors suggested an error handling mechanism, which provided a fallback option in case of error.
Deploying drones for medical delivery at scale will entail thousands of drone deliveries each day. Tracking and keeping records of each delivery will be imperative — we learned this early and developed our drone management and monitoring system known as HIVE . There is a growing number of startups aiming to provide drone delivery services in Nepal as well as South Asia. These companies are innovating and developing drones of different forms for delivery in different industry verticals. They will also need a robust digital infrastructure to smoothly operate their drones and manage the full process of their supply chain, which we are able to provide. HIVE will provide them with backend infrastructure, so they can completely focus on what they do best — developing innovative drone hardware. Our business over the next year will focus on getting drone delivery operations started in some regions of Nepal and similarly provide the digital infrastructure of HIVE to other drone and delivery operators in the South Asian region.
With the motto “No one should die because of lack of health facilities,” we aim to connect health institutions to every corner of the country. We are trying to link up remote health posts to the nearby facilitated distribution centers. For this, we are looking to collaborate with health posts, hospitals, NGOs, INGOs and even the government. HIVE (http://dms.prokurainnovations.com), is a Drone Management System tailored for package delivery aiding the users with features to view current drone status, mission planning, inventory management tools, delivery statistics. The idea is to provide a common platform for drone operators/companies to monitor and keep track of their drones. We are also pursuing the implementation of HIVE in collaboration with the Civil Aviation Authority Nepal (CAAN) to keep track of all drones in compliance with the laws of the country.
Working with the UNICEF Innovation Fund
The whole project would not have been possible without the UNICEF Innovation Fund. Given that the funding was essential to run the operations and procure equipment, UNICEF Innovation Fund has backed us up in every possible way. With the mentorship hours, we got the opportunity to learn a lot and also improve ourselves in the aspects we were lagging behind. Similarly, UNICEF Innovation Fund has given its best, be it linking us to companies, personnel with interests similar to ours, or supporting us with other funding opportunities. Words are not enough to express our gratitude towards UNICEF Innovation Fund for the unparalleled support they’ve given us.
and Ram Raj Khanal