Even though the Digital Sky portal is live, it does not have the zoning system in place, making it difficult for drone players to move forward with business.
With Digital Sky, a platform which was set up to address operational issues in the commercial drone space, yet to become fully operational, drone companies are struggling to stay afloat.
India announced its drone policy in August 2018, which came into effect on December 2018. Jayant Sinha, Minister of State for Civil Aviation, has constituted a task force to deliberate on the Drone Policy 2.0 framework, which include regulatory architecture for autonomous flying and delivery via drones.
As per the drone policy, the drone manufacturers have to register their drones and obtain clearances for flying, which are divided into four zones. While 'green zone' is auto-approved with the information about time and location of flight, 'yellow' and 'red' zone will need clearances to takeoff. In effect, zone classification is important for takeoff of drones.
It was welcomed by industry and hailed as a progressive policy. It was expected to give fillip to the burgeoning drone ecosystem in India. Commercial drone market is about $50 million now and is expected to reach $1 billion in the next two years.
Few months down industry is disappointed at delay in getting the system up and running. Even though the Digital Sky portal is live, it does not have the zoning system in place, making it difficult for drone players to move forward with business. Different governments agencies that are required to give clearances are not working in tandem and lack clarity.
For all the ambition the aviation ministry has shown, the implementation has been extremely poor, say industry players and added that it has adversely affected business.
Let us take the example of Quidich Innovation Labs. Quidich beams live cricket matches using drones. They were one of the first companies to use drones for live broadcast four years ago in India. But it had to miss out on the entire India-Australia series. If the clearances are not in place, the company will be forced to miss Indian Premier League (IPL) too. This translates to loss in revenues too.
Rahat Kulshreshtha, co-founder, Drone Federation of India and founder and CEO, Quidich Innovation Labs, said: "This is disappointing. Instead of taking a step forward, with the delay, we have taken two steps back.”
Prior to policy implementation, commercial drone companies were able to operate by obtaining a NOC on case-to-case basis. Now with no clarity, the companies are unsure about how to proceed and when they will be able to operate.
Vipul Singh, CEO & co-founder, Aarav Unmanned Systems (AUS), said: "We are at a standstill as the Digital Sky website is not fully operational."
Neel Mehta, CEO and co-founder, Asteria Aerospace, concurs.
"There is nothing we can do unless we have the zoning. Also there is uncertainty about the April 1 timeline due to elections," he said.
Indian drone startups are causalities
These are affecting drone companies businesses. While people like Mehta are able to carry on since they work with the government in security and surveillance space, companies such as Quidich and AUS are unable to take on newer projects.
According to Singh, the company is able to keep its head above water only through projects for which they have received clearances earlier.
"We have taken projects outside the country. But we cannot sustain ourselves for long with those projects as the costing does not make sense," he said.
Kulshreshtha explained that while the overseas clients are willing to pay for the travel now, in the long they will prefer local players as the cost factor comes in. "If the situation continues we will either have to setup offices overseas or shut shop," he added.
Industry people fear that this will more or less become a norm longer it take to get the seamless clearance system in place.
"The ecosystem is driven by startups, who do not have enough resources, be it funding or time. The delay will only create causalities," said Singh.
Singh explained that Indian companies in this space, which lack resources, will soon cease to exist and foreign players will dominate it."We need an interim solution so that we can continue with the business," he added.