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This article is more than 1 month old.

Drones are set to soar in the sky as govt provides the ideal launchpad

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If you have been hesitating ordering food from your favourite restaurant that is quite a distance from your house because you are worried that the food will go cold and tepid by the time it is delivered at your doorstep, you have cause for cheer.

Drones are set to soar in the sky as govt provides the ideal launchpad
If you have been hesitating ordering food from your favourite restaurant that is quite a distance from your house because you are worried that the food will go cold and tepid by the time it is delivered at your doorstep, you have cause for cheer. In a few months you may be able to place that order on your preferred food delivery app without having to worry about how long it will take for the food to be delivered.
Restaurant aggregators and food delivery apps Zomato and Swiggy are among the companies testing out using drones for delivering food, medicines and essential items. That a drone will drop off your order at your house may still be some time away, but having that mouth-watering dish while sitting at home, from the restaurant that you used to drive to once in a while will become a possibility sooner than you know.
A drone may pick up your order, take it to a centrally located drone pod and within the next 10-15 minutes, a delivery agent may ring your doorbell with your order, still fresh and warm. Not just food, delivery of medicines and other essentials through the app that you order may also become a reality shortly.
This is not a world of fantasy, but a real-world situation that is emerging thanks to the Government of India announcing a new set of drone rules in August, in the process repealing its own rules issued just a few months earlier.
According to Smit Shah, Director, Drone Federation of India, an industry body, the Government’s approach is most pragmatic and industry-friendly. The new rules put India on a par with other countries as far as regulation goes. It is now up to the industry to make use of the opportunity. He says the drone industry will now be treated like any other industry – say, automobiles – where there are clear guidelines on what can be done and what rules need to be followed, which is a significant change from when the drones industry was heavily regulated and viewed with suspicion.
In March 2021 when the Government announced the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Rules, the feedback was that the rules were restrictive in nature and had been framed with the dangers of rogue drone attacks in mind. It was pointed out that these rules would not help foster innovation and growth of the industry and that no amount of regulation can prevent rogue drone attacks.
The Government’s fears of rogue drone attacks seem to have come true when there were two drone-driven blasts at Indian Air Force’s technical airport in Jammu in June.
Freeing up the sector
However, the Government surprised all concerned when it notified the liberalised Drone Rules, 2021 in August. The new rules have been framed with the objective to make India a drone hub by 2030.
Several approvals have been abolished, the number of forms to be filled up reduced from 25 to five, and the types of fees cut from 72 to a mere four. The rules also the cut the quantum of fees to nominal levels and delinked them from the size of the drone. For example, the fee for a remote pilot license has been brought down from Rs 3,000 (for a large drone) to a mere Rs 100 for all categories of drones.
A digital sky platform shall be developed as a user-friendly single-window system. Most permissions will be self-generated. An interactive airspace map with green, yellow and red zones will be displayed on the digital sky platform. No permissions will be required for operating drones in green zones. There will not be any restriction on foreign ownership in Indian drone companies, while the import of drones will be regulated by the Directorate General of Foreign Trade. The coverage of drones under Drone Rules will be increased from 300 kg to 500 kg and this will cover drone taxis also.
Drone Federation’s Shah reckons that the market potential is over Rs 50,0000 crores in the next five years. There are over 100 drone companies and more than 200 service providers in the country.
Shah said civil aviation regulator Director General of Civil Aviation imposed a blanket ban on the use of drones in the country in 2014 after someone tried to deliver pizzas using a drone. The Government unveiled the first drone policy in 2018, which was restrictive and sought to impose absolute control over the sector. Since then, the Government and industry have worked together to evolve the new set of guidelines.
Large companies have major plans
The Civil Aviation Ministry has permitted drone trials by a few companies, including Mahindra & Mahindra, SAIL, Bayer Crop Science and Karnataka Government. A few State governments have even begun transporting covid vaccines and other essential drugs and life-saving equipment to remote areas using drones. Start-ups such as Detect Technologies and Aarav Unmanned Systems have developed drones for enterprise applications and have raised venture capital funding. Besides, a handful of the large companies such as Reliance Industries, the Tata group, Mahindra & Mahindra and the Adani group have ambitious plans for drones, either for defence purposes or for civilian use. Reliance Industries has picked up a majority stake in a drone startup Asteria Aerospace, while Mahindra & Mahindra and Adani have foreign tie-ups.
Diverse use cases
There are any number of use cases for drones. Vipul Singh, CEO, Aarav Unmanned Systems, says drones are being used under the Government’s Svamitva scheme to map land parcels in rural areas and provide record of rights to village household owners with legal ownership cards. Using drones for irrigation and infrastructure projects will help reduce the time taken for land surveys from about two years to six months, with more accuracy. This means that the time taken for completing the project itself will get substantially compressed thanks to the accuracy of the data.
Drones are being used by others such as Tata Steel and even Coal India to map and audit their resources, especially the mines.
“We have not just tested drone operations but also developed expertise in all these technologies through actual deployment in one of our mines,” said a Tata Steel spokesman. The company is now scaling up its efforts in terms of resources and capacity for parallel deployment across its mining locations. “We also plan to use drones for regular auditing of raw material inventories across company locations,” he said. The objective behind using drones in raw material areas was not for any commercial purpose but to ensure greater accuracy of surveys and monitoring the mines. The biggest advantage was remote monitoring of mines. Remote inspection of mines with high degree of resolution and associated analytics could be done using drones, which result in quantum increase in speed, productivity and accuracy of survey.
Dale Vaz, Chief Technology Officer of restaurant aggregator and food delivery app Swiggy, said Swiggy and ANRA Technologies Pvt Ltd, a leader in integrated airspace management, and other consortium partners, recently concluded experiments on Beyond Visual Line-of-Sight (BVLOS) operations. “We have finished the experiments and submitted the report to the BEAM (BVLOS Experiment, Assessment and Monitoring) Committee. We shall await their communication on the next steps and proceed accordingly. We intend to use the gathered data and learnings from the flights,” he said, in an email response.
He said drones would never replace human delivery experience at Swiggy. Instead, the company hoped to use drones to augment and assist its delivery fleet in being able to scale to meet consumer demand.
PLI scheme for drones
The Government followed up the liberalised drone rules with a Rs 120-crore production linked incentive (PLI) scheme to encourage drone manufacturing. The Government expects the liberalised drone rules and the PLI scheme to spur investment in making drones and drone components to over Rs 5,000 crores in the next three years. The drone manufacturing industry’s sales is expected to grow from Rs 60 crores in 2020-21 to over Rs 900 crores in 2023-24. The industry is expected to generate over 10,000 direct jobs over this period, while the drone services industry comprising operations, logistics, data processing and traffic management is expected to grow to over Rs 30,000 crore in the next three yeas and generate over five lakh jobs.
The Government also expects venture capital and private equity investment in the drone sector to grow exponentially. Investors such as 3one4 Capital, InfoEdge, Blume Ventures and Indian Angel Network have invested in start-ups in the drone space.
As companies firm up plans and investors pump in money, the sky is literally the limit for the drone industry.
VC Investments in Drone Startups
VC Investments in Drone Startups
CompanyFunding Raised ($M)
Detect Tech16
Ideaforge11
SenseHawk7
Aibono5
Skylark Drones3
General AeronauticsN.A.
Zuppa1
Aarav Unmanned Systems1
—N Ramakrishnan is a Chennai-based freelance journalist with over three decades of experience. The views expressed are personal.
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