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Dr-owning the Airspace The easing of regulations by the government and the ban on the import of drones has worked in favour of drone Indian startups

By Saptak Bardhan

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Drones have crossed the divide between the sci-fi world and the real world. While they were primarily used for defence purposes and the military, their commercial use in recent years became too prominent for the world to ignore. The first commercial drone took flight in 2006, the very same year the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued its first commercial drone permit. But it was not until 2013 when Amazon announced that it was going to use drones for delivery purposes did that drones come into the mainstream. In 2015, the first medical delivery using a drone was successfully executed in the United States.

The drone market is majorly divided into two categories- one for commercial use and other for recreational purposes. The ones used for the latter purpose are referred to as "hobby drones". Since hobby drones don't necessarily need attachments as needed in commercial drones, they are cheaper.

The global commercial drone market was estimated at $13.4 billion in 2020 and expected to reach $30 billion by the end of 2022. According to a report by Fact.MR, the drone market is anticipated to grow by a compounded annual growth rate of 25 per cent from 2022 to 2032 to reach a market value of $279 billion. "The use of drones to improve public safety, agriculture and other uses will only increase," said Cindy Hyde-Smith, United States Senator.

The induction of drones into warfare has increased gradually over the years. The first drone in the world was an unmanned balloon made in 1849 in the war between Austria and Venice. The recent wars between Azerbaijan-Armenia and Russia-Ukraine were a witness to the fact that drones are being heavily used in wars.

Indian scenario

Drones made a foray into India in 2016. The Civil Aviation Ministry estimates India's drone sector to achieve a total turnover of INR120-150 billion by 2026, from its turnover of about INR800 million in 2021. The rapid adoption of technology in India has led to drones being utilised across various sectors like agritech, logistics support, surveillance, etc. Drones in the logistics space are being used for warehouse management, delivery of products, structural damage inspection, etc.

India was one of the biggest drone importers in the world contributing to a staggering 22.5 percent of drone imports across the globe. However, in order to promote indigenous drones, there was a conditional ban imposed on the import of drones on 9th February, 2022. Only drones for research purposes and defence were allowed for import.

In order to promote indigenous drones, the government also hosted a two-day event (27th-28th May) called Bharat Drone Mahotsav. The event, which was inaugurated by PM Modi himself, saw the participation of top drone manufacturers.

The Indian defence forces have also shown interest in drones for different purposes like surveillance, weaponized drones, etc. For the purpose of flying, zones are classified into three categories: Green, Yellow and Red Zones

Flying rules for drones near airport: (Infographic)

  • Red Zone: Drone flights prohibited up to 5 kilometres from the airport
  • Yellow:
    • ATC permission required for distances of up to 8 km
    • The drone can then fly up to 200 feet from 8-12 km without requiring permission
  • Green: Beyond 12 km, the drone can fly up to 400 feet without needing permission

Drone flight in the remaining geological areas is contingent on authorities designating specific geo zones, such as for defense areas, strategic installations, or public places. Moreover, the pilots are expected to check the most recent zone information on digital sky, which is updated on a regular basis, before flying over these areas.

The drones are increasingly finding their usage in the agritech space for monitoring crops, precision agriculture spray, seed dropping, etc. Explains Subhadeep Sanyal, partner, Omnivore, "Indian agriculture will eventually struggle with labour availability and soaring prices of Agri inputs. Using drones can solve both these problems. The machines can cover exponentially more area than is humanly possible and their precise operations in farming activities can bring down cultivation costs while improving crop yields, and protecting farmers from the exposure to harmful agrochemicals they face today."

"Service models in agriculture will emerge and drones have the potential to create value for thousands of micro-entrepreneurs who will operate these as a service for farmers," adds Sanyal.

Drone startups in India

The ease of regulations by the Indian government in 2021 and the subsequent ban on the import of drones has worked in favour of drone startups in India. At present, there are 250 startups in this space. These include names like ideaForge, Garuda Aerospace, Aarav Unmanned Systems, etc.

"Garuda Aerospace drones have two different types of delivery drones. One which lands and the package can be picked up that has a capacity of 15-20KG & one which doesn't land & lowers the package in the form of a wench, supported by a cable that has a capacity of 7-10kg. Garuda delivery drones are also equipped with facial recognition software, temperature-controlled sturdy payload delivery boxes to keep the packages in good condition & obstacle avoidance systems to ensure stability during flights," said Agnishwar Jayaprakash, founder and CEO, Garuda Aerospace, whose collaboration with the UN helped him understand emerging technologies like drone.

Over the years, the drone market has evolved and so is the technology that is being integrated into the drones. Startups in the space think that IoT drones will be the future.

"When it comes to the deployment of commercial drones, IoT is becoming increasingly important. IoT-enabled drones can perform a variety of important tasks, particularly those that are too expensive, dangerous, or impossible for humans to complete. Industrial applications, agriculture, logistics, and construction are just a few examples of IoT drone applications," says Ankit Mehta, co-founder and CEO, IdeaForge, who established the company in 2007 and whose idea of working on drones started as a project under an innovation cell in IITB.

The 5G revolution is expected to further facilitate the IoT drones and applications, "5G has good speeds with low latency. Current LTE is good for streaming a camera at 720P resolution whereas in 5G it gives 4K and more resolution. Private 5G and 4G networks can be formed to navigate and communicate with Drones both indoors and outdoors. The 5G network is especially useful for GPS-denied indoor navigation where the very high-quality video is needed to navigate drones. However, it will ease some of the situations with drones," said Abhiram Chava, CEO, Magnumwings LLP.

The usefulness of drones in various sectors and their increasing usage is helping startups secure funding from investors. Mehta's ideaForge, recently closed its Series B funding round of $20 million led by Florintree whereas Garuda Aerospace raised an undisclosed amount of funding from Ocgrow Ventures. The latter also roped in Indian Cricket legend, M.S. Dhoni as its brand ambassador and the former Captain of the Indian Cricket Team is set to become a shareholder in the company.

In the last two years (2020 to 2022), India has witnessed a surge of more than 35 per cent in the number of drone startups, but the allowance of assembling parts of drones imported from foreign is being seen as a challenge by indigenous companies.

"Commercial drone market has just opened up and with the assembly of foreign drones the noticeable impact comes from the on-going decrease of investments in R&D and rush to fulfil orders. The drone market is at a very nascent stage and we need constant technical upgradation to evolve as a drone hub that our government has envisioned. This is only possible with R&D and indeginious products. Sometimes, the substandard assembly of products also leads to unwanted crash incidents which further slows the R&D. We hope the Indian government aligns extra incentives to indeginious developed drones taking a cue from eastern countries," added Chava.

No doubt, drones are transcending sectors as the use cases are numerous. It's a good time for more startups to jump in. Will they seize the opportunity?

Saptak Bardhan

Former Trainee Writer

Former Trainee Writer
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