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Drone Sector: India’s Shining Lighthouse

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Two landmark dates will be forever etched in history, the August 25 notification of much simpler Drone Rules 2021, and the September 15 announcement of an attractive PLI scheme for drones.

Drone Sector: India’s Shining Lighthouse
The mood among all stakeholders of India’s nascent drone sector including academicians, startups, manufacturers, service providers and even end-users is jubilant. The two most important recommendations that were made on behalf of the industry have not only been accepted by the government, but they have also turned out to be better than what was envisaged. Two landmark dates will be forever etched in history, the August 25 notification of much simpler Drone Rules 2021, and the September 15 announcement of an attractive PLI scheme for drones.
The reason drones are called a transformative technology and compared at times with the impact of the internet or global positioning system (GPS) is because they have diverse applications across multiple sectors and can deliver benefits not only for industry but directly in the daily life of the common man. The defence and national security use are well known for many decades. But drones can deliver widespread societal impact for agriculture by reducing costs and enhancing productivity, medicine supplies in remote areas, rural empowerment, disaster relief, infrastructure project monitoring and many others.
Less than six months back, the notification of the UAS Rules 2021 had brought despondency to all. The shackles that were initially placed because of the threat from rogue drones seemed to be back. The turnaround has been nothing short of miraculous. Especially more so from the perspective of hundreds of young start-up founders who had put in years of their passion and sweat into creating "designed and manufactured in India" drone solutions at par with the best in the world but were awaiting the larger commercial market opportunity. With these two milestones, India is now well on its path to become the drone hub of the world by 2030.
The belief that drones are an enabling societal impact technology delivering value across multiple sectors has already been proven by the success of the Survey of Villages Abadi and Mapping with Improvised Technology in Village Areas (SVAMITVA) scheme where drones have been instrumental in the fast-track delivery of property cards to over 840,000 rural households enabling them new avenues of economic well-being. The industry acknowledges the efforts and hard work put in by scores of concerned officials in the Ministry of Civil Aviation and others involved in making these developments happen at a break-neck speed.
It is also important to highlight the background efforts that had gone in to support the laudable outcomes. In September 2020, we at FICCI had set up a Drone Working Group as per the guidance and directions of the dynamic Steering Committee for Advancing Local Value-Add and Exports (SCALE) led by Dr Pawan Goenka under the aegis of the Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade (DPIIT), Ministry of Commerce & Industry. Our charter was simple - create an action plan for the vision of India to become the drone manufacturing hub of the world. I had the privilege to lead a group of eminent personalities from industry, end-users including armed forces, academic experts and start-up founders. After toiling for over six months with the support of EY as our Knowledge Partner, we prepared a bottom-up estimate of the total addressable market potential for drones & counter-drones in India of three trillion rupees (INR 300,000 crores or roughly US$ 40 billion) with up to 60 percent domestic manufacturing opportunity by 2030. Post multiple iterations with the SCALE committee, in early March 2021, we were ready to present our recommendations to the DPIIT leadership.
Every crisis also opens an opportunity. When the previous untenable regulations were announced on  March 12, we quickly got together with all stakeholders collecting specific concerns and soon had our hands full with a long list of issues needing to be brought out. We managed to distil them down to only two additional slides in our Working Group presentation to the then DPIIT Secretary Dr Guruprasad Mohapatra in the presence of Joint Secretary Ministry of Civil Aviation Shri Amber Dubey on March 23. The potential of the drone sector was presented along with request for extending the PLI scheme and repealing the onerous rules. We were given a patient hearing and guided on the next steps for submitting a detailed white paper.
At a more macro level, the past few months have made the nascent drone sector in India a lighthouse model for others to emulate. Firstly, the drone sector has showcased the genuine success of the triple helix of innovation in India - close-knit yet open and honest outcome-oriented collaboration taking place between government, academia, and industry on a real-time basis with a common goal being the key driver.
Secondly, the government has demonstrated that it is open to listen to constructive feedback and change tracks to roll out better policies in the best interests of the nation especially for technologies that deliver societal impact. And lastly, once we provide our youth, the enabling environment and freedom to innovate, they will put their unmatched intellect to build unicorns not only in the software sector but also leveraging other Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies where hi-tech engineering and advanced manufacturing is involved.
On September 12 at the inauguration of the ‘Medicine from the Sky’ project in Telangana in partnership with the World Economic Forum, the Minister for Civil Aviation, Shri Jyotiraditya Scindia noted that the young start-up founders are the “real heroes” of India’s drone revolution. This is what the real opportunity of Atmanirbhar Bharat is all about. The launchpad is now ready for India’s youth and India’s drone revolution has well and truly begun.
The author is Rajan Luthra, Chair of FICCI Committee on Drones
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