DRDO had developed On-Board Oxygen Generating System (OBOGS) for fighter aircraft which had an offshoot in the form of Medical Oxygen Plants (MOP). This technology was leveraged to alleviate the oxygen crisis by developing Medical Oxygen Plants.

The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), an important R&D wing of Ministry of Defence, has not only spearheaded a number of strategic projects including ballistic missiles, but has risen to the nation’s requirements both in peacetime and during crisis. When India is being engulfed with a deadly variant of the Covid-19 pandemic, DRDO has come up with significant contributions in combating it. Moreover, its contributions are not known to the masses and hence it would be a worthwhile exercise to acknowledge these contributions and also apprise the rest of the world on how India is attempting to address the challenges domestically.

At a time when the world does not have any experience about handling a crisis of this scale, the timely intervention by DRDO and its far-sightedness is proving to be a great respite for India. The DRDO has always made a modest attempt to fulfil its obligations of empowering India with cutting edge defence technologies and a mission to achieve self-reliance in critical defence technologies and systems. Over the years, DRDO got expanded and now it has become a network of more than 50 laboratories which are making India prepared for moving in the direction of complete self-reliance. Technically speaking, DRDO has become an amalgamation of almost all the disciplines including life sciences.
The current strides DRDO has made in combating Covid-19 waves and preparing India for the third wave is something to be proud of. The DRDO has constructed medical oxygen plants, a number of hospitals, cylinders for storing oxygen and also flow meter-based oxygen cylinders. DRDO has also developed equipment to fight Covid-19. During the first wave itself, DRDO stepped in and took initiatives in developing a number of sanitisation products including 3-ply N95 and N99 masks, hand sanitisers, personnel sanitisation systems and also area sanitisation systems. All these products were distributed to the needy across India.
The DRDO has been transitioning India on the path of self-reliance and has shown that it can develop the relevant gadgets that will be useful in addressing the need of the hour. While India was under a complete lockdown last year, DRDO was working round the clock and came up with a number of products that were not only useful but vital for combating Covid-19. The PPE products which included face protection shield, aerosol protection enclosure and PPE coverall suit were developed by DRDO at par with world standards. It must be mentioned that the production level of PPE has grown manifold and right now more than a lakh DRDO-designed PPEs are being produced on a daily basis.
The DRDO has also achieved mastery in harnessing spin-off products from various technologies. The intensification of all its efforts in an integrated fashion is a testimony of DRDO’s success in making India confident in the current situation. Through such integrated efforts, the DRDO has built world class ventilators, medical aid kit and also multi-patient ventilators. It has contributed significantly in the production and distribution of packed food and juices. The credit should also go to DRDO for making 11 variants of UV disinfection devices.
DRDO undertook this challenge within a definite timeline when the global supply for PPEs, N95 respirators and ventilators was slowing down and there was an urgent necessity to fill the void. Obviously, the priority was to protect healthcare professionals first and prepare India for managing the Covid-19 disaster. The question was how the DRDO could leverage its knowledge pool and existing resources in making India self-sufficient.
The singular challenge faced by DRDO was to indigenize the mass production of medical grade PPEs, N95/N99 respirators and medical grade ventilators. How India could keep itself away from imports became a major part of its plan of action mainly depicting its “Aatmanirbharta” as a part of its strategy. From being a net importer of PPEs and masks, India soon transition itself to a net exporter where it also started leveraging its national interest by providing these to needy countries across the globe. The self-sufficiency in these fields provided a space for India to promote its diplomatic interests both in its immediate and extended neighbourhood as well as in countries across Indian Ocean littorals.
The rapid surge of the first wave and an even more deadly second wave overwhelmed the hospital capacities for ICU beds and beds with Oxygen Supply. It was a situation that warranted DRDO’s expertise in systems engineering and improvising for critical components. DRDO had never made hospitals, but when the need arose, DRDO leveraged its extensive program management capability and designed massive negative pressure biohazard containment makeshift Covid-19 hospitals on a war footing. The first project, a 500-bed hospital at Delhi was built in 11 days. DRDO’s biowarfare expertise was now saving countless lives. Nine makeshift hospitals with a staggering 1,275 ICU beds (with ventilators) and 3,925 beds with oxygen supply are being commissioned to combat the second wave. All this was completed within six weeks.
The nature of Covid-19 is such that demand for oxygen increased manifold. The DRDO has addressed this with utmost care and within a definite time frame. Patients were coming to the hospitals with oxygen saturation levels as low as 60 and since oxygen was in short supply, it was a race against time to tackle the three problems of oxygen generation, oxygen transport and reduce oxygen wastage.
DRDO had developed On-Board Oxygen Generating System (OBOGS) for fighter aircraft which had an offshoot in the form of Medical Oxygen Plants (MOP). This technology was leveraged to alleviate the oxygen crisis by developing Medical Oxygen Plants. To ensure hospitals have their own oxygen generation capability, DRDO designed 1,000 litres per minute oxygen generation plants. Mass production was set into motion along with industry collaboration through zero cost technology transfer for the establishment of 380 plants in a span of 3 months. To avoid wastage of oxygen from the cylinder-based oxygen support system, a closed loop SPO2 based automatic regulator was designed for use at home, at Covid-19 care centres and hospitals. The system would dynamically increase or decrease the flow based on the patient’s SPO2 levels. To alleviate the challenges of cylinder shortage, DRDO mobilised more than 1,000 large cylinders for oxygen storage and transport.
The organisation gave the best when the nation needed the most. DRDO has spread the message of hope with its nimble transformation from missiles-maker to mask-designer and main battle tank designer to innovating for saving lives.
It must be mentioned here that DRDO did what the nation needed while combating Covid-19. It somehow never advertised its accomplishments. All this was made possible because of the teamwork of the scientists and engineers and their work various industries for mass production. The technological knowhow and sharing of knowledge with industry by DRDO is a testimony of India’s dream of strengthening public-private partnership. It is high time for India to appreciate the efforts of DRDO and more particularly its Chairman, Dr G. Satheesh Reddy who through his vision, leadership, able guidance and more importantly the team leader who remains in the background and never seeks publicity helped India slowly and steadily get prepared to overcome this ongoing crisis.
Dr Arvind Kumar is Professor at School of International Studies (SIS), JNU and specialises in the field of the complementarity between technology and strategy. He is currently the Chairperson of the Centre of Canadian, US and Latin American Studies at SIS, JNU, New Delhi.