Up, up and away: Drone Start-Ups are getting ready to take on the skies
Dr Swati Subodh
Last year India finally announced its long awaited policy for remotely piloted air crafts. This opens up a huge untapped market for the drone sector of the industry which has many promising start-ups waiting to explore the horizons!
This year’s cricket IPL seasons offered the TV audience a visual treat of aerial shots of the stadium, the match and breathe-taking views of the host city’s skyline. All this was made possible by cameras mounted on drones that swarmed the venue giving a 360-degree experience of the venue to cricket enthusiasts across the world. On the other hand, drone shots of the recent floods in Kerala transmitted the widespread devastation caused by the floods. This helped to amplify the relief and support activities by fellow countrymen who witnessed a 360-degree view of the challenges being faced by the people.
Ground Rules for mapping the sky!
Barring technical nuances and differences, the term UAV and drones are interchangeably used. The drone sector, although just about half a decade into existence, is already stretching its wings despite the regulatory quagmire. The recent policy on drones, the Indian Drone Policy 1.0, is not only expected to give respite from the existing regulatory ambiguities but also is a pointer to the changing mindset of the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) towards unmanned aviation.
In a global first, the policy has introduced a ‘No Permission-No Takeoff (NPNT)’ clause much like that for manned aviation. All drone flights will similarly need to be registered and logged. The skies will now be demarcated into Red (no-fly zones); Yellow (restricted permission); and Green (all access).
Drones are classified as Nano (150kg). All drones above 2 kg will require registrations and permissions to be flown only by a DCGA approved pilot up to an altitude of 120 metres. According to the policy, all drone flights should be in clear sight and scheduled only during daytime. Separate areas would be demarcated for testing and experimenting.
Nano drones and micro drones will not require any permission as long as they are flown under heights of 15 metres and 60 metres respectively. None of the drones can be used to drop/ discharge material without explicit clearance; and should not be operated from mobile platforms like moving vehicles.
The geofencing and timespanning of each drone flight will be part of the pre-flight permission which the operators will have to adhere to.
All official communications between drone pilots and DCGA regarding request for permissions, filing of reports and logs of all flights will be facilitated by a central platform − Digital Sky
Escalating opportunities for Drone Start-Ups
The Drone Federation of India, a collective of drone Start-ups, sees the policy as a start point in building investor confidence, which has so far been negligible due to uncertainty of legality of drones. Although they hope for more progressive versions of the policy in future, Version 1.0 in itself could go a long way in boosting the drone Start-up ecosystem in the country.
Authority of India (NHAI), and many others, which require drone-based intervention for enhanced efficiencies in implementation and in drastically reducing timeframes. The big draw for drone microentrepreneurs is that they need to have trained pilots, but they need not be experts in the field where their drones could have potential applications. This is because the drone offers broad utility in various sectors at the interface of data collection and capture; the analysis is a separate piece which can be dealt with by analysts, inspectors or any other end user.
Although the sector is heavily dominated by military applications with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 5%, the shift to commercial/ civilian applications (CAGR 19%) is gaining momentum (Fig. 2). According to research, the Indian Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) is projected to grow at a CAGR of 18% during 2017–2023. The market for commercial endusers in India will supersede the military market by 2021, and the cumulative market in India is expected to hit upwards of USD 885.7 million by 2021. During the same time the global market is expected to touch USD 21.47 billion.
The demand for drones is primarily derived from military use, law enforcement, precision agriculture, inspection and monitoring, media and entertainment, and other uses. They can be used for delivery of fertilisers in fields and to ship goods, a use e-commerce firms may be interested in.
The Start-ups are exploring all types of drones to cater to these rising demands; starting with the popular multi-rotor drones to fixed wing drones, single rotor helicopter and fixed wing hybrid VTOL.
Starting up for a bird’s eye view
A few of the Indian drone Startups have already taken flight despite the operational and regulatory maze that had existed till recently. The popular choice among them are the quadrotor nano and the micro drones due to the ease of obtaining hardware, ease of programming, ease of operations, and now, lesser regulatory restrictions.
The Start-up already has a list of clients from defence and homeland security like BSF, CRPF, Gujarat Police, Maharashtra Police, and NDRF for its micro UAV, NETRA v2. The drones in this series are indigenous, robust, and ready to be deployed for military, civil and industrial applications. The NETRA v2 boasts of features like launch from confined spaces to cover a circle of 10 km diameter over a height of up to 400 m, zoom-in feature to identify activity up to 500 m, and real-time footage in daytime and pitch dark conditions. Its fail safe modes include auto-landing on low battery, and return-to-home on communication interference. This Infosys-backed Start-up also bagged an order from energy giant NTPC last year thereby foraying into the commercial sector.
Aarav Unmanned Systems (AUS)
AUS, a 3-year-old Startup, comprises of a group of interdisciplinary specialists; from developer and engineers to artists and designers. Their offerings — Sparrow and Insights cater primarily to the commercial sector for industrial inspection, mining, precision agriculture; and mapping and surveying. AUS flagship product Insight-PPK is operated through computer software developed by AUS and the flight controls and image sensors on the drones are customised. (Fig. 5). Their clients are both from the corporate and government sectors. According to AUS, the focus on mining is due to the need to continuously monitor stocks worth crores inside the mines and to monitor land parameters inside and outside the mine in fulfilment of safety regulation. The company claims that since their drones can capture two million times more data than other techniques it has successfully brought down error rates from 10% to 1.5%-2%. This reflects directly on government royalties. Coal India is one of its prominent clients. In another project AUS has created detailed 3D models of a geographic location to help in construction of watersheds in Rajasthan. The company also has Hindalco, Vedanta, JSW, L&T and two state governments as its clients. AUS raised an undisclosed amount of pre-series A funding from GrowX ventures, 500 Start-ups and BellWether Advisors to enable expansion of its business and focus on R&D.
Another prominent drone Startup is Skylark Drones which in a short time span have managed to redesign and change the way agribusiness governs produce, developed better work flows for mining conglomerates and played a role in prototyping India’s first smart village.
Skylark has already expanded its playing field considerably. In mining, they provide mapping and surveying solutions that reproduce digital twins of the mines to help with boundary lease compliance, blasting operations, etc. Automated thermal and visual inspection of lease boundaries can detect encroachments and also assess safety compliances. In agriculture, Skylark digitises agricultural fields to measure farm boundaries and sowing areas for accurate produce and seed management. These digital farms enable yield management by combining near real-time mapping with crop health inputs. It also measures farm areas which are under performing.
In power/telecommunication lines, drone surveys are used to plan optimal right of way (RoW); digitise power lines and cell towers; and understand asset aging. They use visual and thermal payloads to understand delivery shortfalls, isolate energy and transmission loss, find corrosion of insulators and defective components. In infrastructure for solar energy generation, drones automate daily maintenance while tracking faults on geo-location along with shadow and dust analysis (Source: skylark drones)
Analysis, analysis, analysis
Drones offer low-cost, safe and quick aerial surveys for data collection. With big data and tools such as 3D modelling, and thermal maps, businesses can simulate and analyse varied situations. Drones can inspect tall structures and offshore rigs.
Commercial software for ‘actionable’ data captured by drones is increasingly becoming commonplace, thereby making drone based applications more accessible. Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning is adding another layer of data based real time intelligence and insight for the end user. The requirement for commercial analysis of data collected through drones in itself launching another line of Start-ups.
As the drone sector broadens its horizons the best is yet to come.
(The column was published in the September-October 2018 issue of Invention Intelligence, a magazine by the National Research & Development Corporation, Govt. of India)