A general view of a camera-mounted drone (Image: Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports via Reuters)
Awareness of drones has widened in the past few months. First, there was talk of using drones to ferry COVID-19 vaccines to remote parts of the country. Then, there was a drone attack on an airbase in Jammu last month, which was followed by assertions of developing anti-drone technology.
Last week, the government proposed to ease regulations on drones and put out the draft Drone Rules 2021 in the public domain to invite suggestions on how to simplify drone operations in the country.
So while drones will soon be zipping across Indian skies, they will not be made-in-India drones – nobody in the country fully manufactures drones. Most parts are imported and drones are only assembled locally.
The biggest drone assemblers in India include Idea Forge, Asteria Aerospace, Adani Defence and Tata Advance Systems. Many others are also entering this sector, according to Smit Shah, director of the Drone Federation of India, an association of drone pilots and companies in New Delhi.
Satyendra Pandey, managing partner at AT-TV, an aviation advisory firm in New Delhi, said the basic drone consists of the body, rotors, motors, a piloting system and various sensors.
According to Shah, there are three crucial parts of a drone – the battery, the motors, and the propellers, which are largely imported. For other parts, both Indian and foreign components are available. These include the main airframe, the flight controller, cameras or sensors used to capture data capture, radio links and ground control stations or the remote controller.
“In India, we are currently doing assembly and to a certain extent, airframe manufacturing. Hence, we cannot yet call ourselves as a drone-manufacturing nation in the true sense. Unless component manufacturing is done in India, we cannot hope to claim making a truly indigenous drone,” said Ankit Kumar, managing partner at Alternative Global India, a management consulting firm.
He said no company in India makes 100 percent indigenous drones. “This is primarily due to non-availability of component developers,” Kumar pointed out.
Shah agreed and added that to say Make in India, “we have to focus on the drone as a whole and not focus on the parts.”
Dependence on China
There are various reasons why drones are not fully manufactured in India. Pandey pointed out that drone development has not quite taken off in the country because of regulatory hurdles.
“Till recently, there was confusion on who to approach for permissions. Hobby developers grappled with challenges as drones could be tested only at dedicated sites and the clearance process required clarity. It is hoped that with the new policy, this is addressed,” he said.
The draft Drone Rules propose that the import of drones and drone components will be regulated by the Directorate General of Foreign Trade.
The various parts that go into the making of a drone are available in many countries. However, according to Shah, most of these parts are imported from China.
“Drones are typically of three types. Commercial, which are generally between 25 and 40 kg – these are made from multi-purpose components which majorly come from China. Then there is defence, which has two categories – smaller weight, ideally up to 40 to 50 kg, which also come from China. But technologies for the larger ones, which are almost as big as an aircraft or fighter aeroplane analogous to a helicopter, come from Israel,” Shah said.
Pandey added that despite the rhetoric, “China continues to be a core supplier as components are readily available at most competitive rates.”
According to others, drone components are also imported from Taiwan, Korea, the US and Europe. Experts are now optimistic that this scenario may change.
“We expect the DGFT to come up with clear rules for regulating the import of drones and liberalising the import of drone components completely. The federation also expects the DGFT to come up with a clear set of regulations for import of drones in alignment with the government’s vision of Aatmanirbhar Bharat and indigenous manufacturing in the country,” Shah said.
Given that the drone sector is still in the nascent stages, how the situation unfolds in the near future is important. Shah expects prices of drones in India to come down by 20 to 30 percent and more in the future due to the liberalized norms proposed by the government.
“Right now, things are controlled by a few and that is why prices always remain at a particular threshold. But when the rules are completely implemented and liberalized, more startups and more companies with better technology will enter the sector and the ease of doing business will significantly increase, so naturally, prices will come down,” he contended.
Kumar agreed and said it will become simpler to use drones and with scaled-up operations and utilisation, drone prices will come down.
“Today, the effort involved in developing a drone and getting it certified is immense. With the draft drone rules in place, this effort will certainly be eased,” he added.
There is also the issue of drones being used by terrorists and others to harm civilians, as it happened in Jammu & Kashmir on June 27. Pandey said the government has to balance several factors.
“While the policy is a great step forward, the attacks in Jammu are also a reality. As such, it is the monitoring and enforcement of policy that is important. And this has to be done in a manner where compliance is strict but does not lead to folks becoming averse to drone development with policy acting as a deterrent in their development,” he said.
Price and policy should not be deterrents for commercial use, but for military use only.
“The reality is that the country does have several lakh unregistered drones and while most of them will not have any military-grade capabilities, even one modified drone that is used to harm citizens is one too many,” Pandey pointed out.