In February, a Himalayan glacier fell into the Alaknanda river in Uttarakhand, causing immense damage to the Rishi Ganga Hydro Electric Dam. Access and connectivity to dozens of villages were cut off with the land route becoming unusable.
The situation could have turned dire, but thanks to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), better known as drones, connectivity was restored quickly. The drones were used to lay optic cable wires in the villages, establishing communications and ensuring that help reached those who were affected quickly.
Nearly 2,500 km to the east of Rishi Ganga, in the remote hamlet of Maweit in Meghalaya’s Nongstoin district, drones are proving to be lifesavers every day. Bites by venomous snakes are common in the area and it is critical that a victim gets anti-venom within the “golden hour”.
However, because of the remoteness of the region and the hilly terrain, it would take hours at the minimum to get the anti-venom to the local primary health centre (PHC). Now, anti-venom, vaccines or blood dispatched from the Nongstoin District Hospital reach the Maweit PHC in a matter of minutes thanks to the Hybrid e-VTOL Aquila X2 drone.
While drones have been around in India for a few years now, they have proliferated in recent months, especially in the interiors of the country, thanks to the easing of regulations governing these unmanned aircraft in August. The new rules are built on the premise of trust, self-certification and non-intrusive monitoring.
Industry insiders claim that since the new rules were announced in August, the number of drones in the country has proliferated. However, none of the drone operating companies was willing to provide specific numbers beyond asserting that drones were being deployed in more and more states and that they themselves had submitted applications to operate in more states.
On its part, the government says the drone revolution is just beginning. Amber Dubey, Joint Secretary, Ministry of Civil Aviation, attributes the enhanced use of drones in the country to the release of the liberalised Drone Rules in August and India’s drone airspace map the following month.
“Nearly 85 per cent of India is a green zone, where no permission is required (to use drones) up to 400 feet. In April 2020 there were just six green zones near six metros and there, too, one needed permission from the Digital Sky Platform to fly drones,” says Dubey.
Earlier, users had to register with the Digital Sky Platform to get a unique identification number and get approval before flying drones.
India is divided into different zones for safety reasons. The red zone is usually a no-fly zone where one can fly only with the Centre’s permission. The yellow zone is the area around airports involving possible proximity to manned aircraft.
To operate a drone in the yellow zone, one needs permission from the respective Air Traffic Controller. In the green zone, permission to fly is automatic. With the number of green zones increasing, drones now have the potential to fly over larger areas of the country.
Several cumbersome approval processes have been abolished, making it easier for companies to start operating drones. The fee has been reduced to nominal levels and delinked from the size of the drone. Now, the fee for a remote pilot license is Rs 100 for all categories of drones and is valid for 10 years.
With the rules changing many private players have entered the drone space. Among the bigger players in India are Major Asteria Aerospace (in which Reliance Industries acquired a 51.78 percent equity stake in 2019), ideaForge, Skylark drones, Redwing Aerospace Labs and AUS.
Another reason why so many private players are entering the drone space is the size and potential of the market. According to Smit Shah, Director, Drones Federation of India (DFI), the industry has the potential to be worth Rs 50,000 crore in annual revenue in the next five years, including manufacturing and services.
As for pricing, in an earlier interaction with Moneycontrol, Shah had said that pricing depends on a drone’s application, noting that a very basic toy drone may cost between Rs 5,000 to Rs 10,000, while drones used for photography cost between Rs 1–2 lakh.
“A spraying drone for agriculture may cost Rs 7–10 lakh. Defence drones being used for patrolling and surveillance could cost Rs 1 crore. And larger drones purchased for strategic and tactical purposes could cost a few hundred crores,” he said.
Today, usage of drones has been expanded to a wide range of tasks. They are used to deliver medicines, map terrain, provide relief during natural disasters, spray crops, gather weather data, and assist police and security forces. They are used in the renewable energy, infrastructure, forestry and agriculture sectors.
In addition, surveys, bridge inspections as well as monitoring of telecom towers and construction projects — including rail and road projects — are done using drones. In doing so, drones are helping productivity, improving efficiency and lowering costs both for the government as well as private organisations.
During the Covid pandemic, the Drones Federation of India made 162 drone pilots available in 10 States, including Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh as well as Delhi-NCR, to help district administrations and police forces in monitoring as the coronavirus started spreading across the country. The pilots remained available for three months.
According to Chirag Sharma of Drone Destination, the Ministry of Agriculture is closely working with the drone industry and agro-chemical companies to explore the wide-scale use of spray drones to boost crop yields for farmers.
DFI’s Shah says drones are also being used to guard the country’s borders and to manage internal security. “A recent example of this is the emergency procurement of various types of drones for security surveillance. Many more such orders and requests are in the pipeline,” Shah adds.
What private players are doing
Drones can fly over varying distances depending on the size and the technology used. They come as nano unmanned aircraft, which weigh 250 gms or less; micro unmanned aircraft, weighing more than 250 gm but less than 2 kg; and large unmanned aircraft, weighing more than 150 kg.
Private players deploy drones for a range of uses. For example, TechEagle has deployed hybrid eVTOL fixed-wing drones, which are both helicopters and aircraft, in Meghalaya to deliver both generic medicines and those that require cold storage.
“The advantage of hybrid drones is that they can travel longer distances and carry up to 3 kg of load for a range of up to 100 km. Besides, they can sustain flight in high-speed winds of up to 45 km an hour while normal drones can sustain wind speeds of 20 to 25 kmph,” says Vikram Singh, a 2012 IIT Kanpur alumni who started TechEagle.
He adds that the range of the eVTOL, which takes off and lands like a helicopter and converts automatically into a fixed-wing mode to cruise over longer distances, is almost “4x or 5x” the range of a conventional drone.
Singh describes TechEagle as a drone logistics airline that works primarily with healthcare items. The company is trying to create hubs between district hospitals and primary healthcare centres and other centres for delivery.
“The bid was opened last week. The contract formalities are happening. It is not yet signed but we have won the deal,” said Singh, promoter of Aarav Unmanned Systems, better known as AUS, which is headquartered in Bengaluru. The award has been given by the Survey of India – Haryana and AUS plans to deploy between 40 to 50 drones in the State.
Over the next year AUS will map about 35,000 sq km of Haryana. It has about 80 drones, a mix of eVTOLs and regular drones.
AUS had previously won contracts to deploy as many as 80 drones in various States, including Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, UP and Maharashtra. The contract for 80 drones is worth close to Rs 25 crore, while the Haryana contract will be close to Rs 12 crore.
Many issues resolved
According to the players in the drone sector, many of the issues that the industry faced have been resolved, though some challenges remain. The Ministry of Civil Aviation is the policymaker and implementer of the drone policy while drones are regulated by the Drones Directorate in the Directorate General of Civil Aviation.
According to DFI’s Shah the immediate problem from a regulation perspective has been taken care of by the new rules but “now we are looking at trade promotion, where we are looking at working with various public and private sector organisations to bring in huge demand for drones.
The other is infrastructure support under which we are looking at indigenising technology and building not just small drones for commercial use but also large drones for commercial and defence purposes. All this requires infrastructure support.”
Swapnik Jakkampudi, Co-Founder, Skye Air Mobility, says that the country could do with more trained pilots for Beyond Visual Line of Sight drone flights.
Shah adds that demand for drones needs to be increased to expand the size of the market. “It is not a challenge but an evolutionary process. The domestic drone industry is very aspirational. We want to go much, much faster than other industries,” he says.