Why Autonomous Drones Are India's Ticket to a Global Drone Hub Drones have moved past military tools of surveillance and taken the place of valuable industrial assets. Mining, infrastructure, forest conservation, and numerous sectors have begun using drone solutions to enhance their productivity and efficiency

By Suhas Banshiwala

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Technological innovation is the bedrock of development in our society. Right from the Green Revolution that industrialized our food production to the establishment of a world-class IT sector, modernization has always helped us push past roadblocks. Today, the drone industry stands at the precipice of another major economic boom in the country. The government aims to make India a Global Drone Hub by 2030. To achieve this monumental vision, evolving our existing indigenous drone technology is critical.

Drones have moved past military tools of surveillance and taken the place of valuable industrial assets. Mining, infrastructure, forest conservation, and numerous sectors have begun using drone solutions to enhance their productivity and efficiency. For instance, drone data has made mining significantly safer and redefined its lifetime ROI. In the construction industry, drones are helping build digital twins, monitor progress, and track assets. Similarly, drone tech has also made a mark in agriculture, disaster management, and urban and rural development.

However, the adoption of drones is just the halfway point in the integration of this technology. Rest comes from investment in R&D and constant innovation. Modern-day drones have enough autonomy to take off, land, avoid certain types of obstacles, follow a pre-defined flight path, and monitor their own flight systems. But, going forward we must aim to reach a stage of autonomy where drones can analyze and evaluate real-world scenarios and adjust their mission parameters completely devoid of human intervention.

Getting to such an advanced stage of autonomy requires constant innovation and globally this is happening at an exponential rate. According to a report by Mathys & Squire, 4,876 patents were granted for drones worldwide in 2021. This was a 39% increase from 2020. However, two-thirds of these patents belong to Chinese research institutions followed by the US. If we intend to truly lead the world in terms of autonomous drones and capture the $20 billion market, we cannot miss out on developing indigenous drone tech. Currently, we have over 200 drone startups and one of the youngest workforces in the country. Thus, our potential to innovate and lead this segment is massive.

The current achievements in drone technology represent merely a fraction of their untapped potential. Numerous significant drone applications remain undiscovered and are yet to be conceived. A pivotal catalyst for fully realizing this potential lies in the level of intelligence and autonomy that can be integrated into a drone's avionics.

But this gives rise to a particularly important question, what stage of autonomy are we currently at and how can it exactly help us become a global drone hub? To answer that we must first understand the various stages of autonomy.

Where Autonomous Drones Can Take Us

Understanding our current technological standing is the most crucial step. Drones or UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) can be categorized into 6 levels of autonomy. Starting from level 0 where the drone is controlled completely by a pilot to level 5 where drones can use autonomous learning systems to plan and modify their flight plans. Currently, we are in between levels 2 and 3 of autonomy where pilots are required to plan, monitor, and ensure safe operations.

Look at this breakdown of autonomy levels for a clearer picture:

Level 0 (Manual Control) – At this level, the drone is entirely under manual control by a human operator. Every aspect of the flight, from takeoff to landing and all maneuvers, is controlled by the operator in real time.

Level 1 (Remote Control) – Drones at this level can be flown remotely, but they may have some degree of automation for tasks like altitude and position holding. However, most operations still require direct human control. For example, it may include features like gyroscopic stabilization, GPS-assisted navigation, and basic flight modes such as altitude hold.

Level 2 (Assisted Flight) – Drones in this category have more advanced automation features. They can perform tasks like GPS-based waypoint navigation, and the ability to follow pre-programmed flight paths. While a human operator is still necessary for mission planning and oversight, the drone can perform some tasks autonomously.

Level 3 (Partial Autonomy) – Drones with conditional autonomy can operate autonomously within certain predefined parameters and conditions. They can handle more complex tasks and adapt to changing environmental conditions, but human operators are required for monitoring and intervention if necessary.

Level 4 (High Autonomy) – Drones at this level can operate autonomously in most situations without constant human supervision. They have advanced obstacle avoidance and can handle dynamic scenarios to a significant extent. However, human operators are still required for higher-level decision-making and overriding autonomous actions when needed.

Level 5 (Full Autonomy) – At this level, drones are fully autonomous and capable of making complex decisions independently, without human intervention. They have advanced sensors, artificial intelligence, and machine learning capabilities, allowing them to perform tasks in a wide range of environments and scenarios with minimal or no human supervision.

Beyond the individual autonomy levels of each drone, even greater possibilities emerge when multiple autonomous drones collaborate to achieve a common task. This collective effort is referred to as swarm autonomy. Each drone within the swarm may have its own level of autonomy, and they communicate with each other to accomplish their objectives.

Over the past decade, fundamental drone technology has developed significantly, providing reliable flight capabilities for small to medium-scale operations. However, expanding the frontiers of what can be achieved with drones will largely depend on the extent to which autonomous features can be reliably integrated into future drone technology.

Imagine fully automated drones operating seamlessly in various domains. Picture them surveying vast agricultural fields, monitoring critical infrastructure, aiding in search and rescue missions, and even facilitating last-mile delivery of goods and services all without human intervention. These drones could realistically adapt to a wide range of environments and conditions to complete any operation.

What Will It Take to Build Level 5 Autonomous Drones

Advancements in artificial intelligence, computer vision, and sensor technology are continually pushing the boundaries of drone autonomy, expanding their potential uses in various industries.

Moreover, achieving higher levels of autonomy in its true sense is only possible through vertical-specific endeavors. General-purpose drone solutions use off-the-shelf components for a specific purpose. This leaves little room for new innovations. However, if you develop domain-specific technologies, that helps build a strong set of IPs.

It is not reasonable to expect advanced sensors, proprietary algorithms, and processing capabilities to be built into an off-the-shelf drone. Thus, for building vertical-specific autonomous drones, a lot of resources are needed to be directed towards R&D of technologies such as MEMS, GNSS, RF, image processing, power systems, propulsion systems, control systems, processing units, and much more.

The second and arguably the most vital component of accelerating this process is enriching our existing and upcoming workforce. Upskilling the current workforce with the necessary skills to contribute to this booming industry is essential.Simultaneously, introducing drone technology in educational institutions can help develop the next generation of innovators.

In the Indian context, our emphasis appears to be primarily on enhancing the skills of drone operators. However, to realize the vision of becoming a global hub for drone technology, it is of greater significance to nurture a pool of creative thinkers and engineers with specialized knowledge in drone technology. Our knowledge-building efforts should encompass areas such as software engineering, embedded systems, hardware development, and systems engineering. After all, a great nation can't be built with borrowed technology.

Let's attempt to draw an analogy between drone technology and the automotive industry. Frequently, we hear people say that self-driving cars may not succeed in India due to its road infrastructure and adverse traffic conditions. Fortunately, the same argument doesn't apply to drone technology, thanks to a whole new expanded vertical dimension available for unmanned aerial vehicles to navigate. This presents a humongous opportunity that also negates the notion that India cannot make significant advancements in drone technology as quickly as the rest of the world. The determining factor is primarily going to be how fast can we keep innovating at the core aspects of the drone tech itself especially those that enhance its intelligence and autonomy.

This industry is growing exponentially. Smarter and autonomous drones will open a Pandora's box of possibilities. Whether it is fighting climate change, building smarter integrated cities, or taking our economy to the next level, the drone revolution is at our doorstep. It is up to us to give it the right direction.

Suhas Banshiwala

Co-founder and CTO, Aereo

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