Throughout the IPL, viewers could finally distinguish between the various venues as Quidich’s city shots made it clear where a game was being played. Drone shots like Mumbai’s famous Queen’s Necklace near Wankhede stadium put TV viewers in the thick of action. Drones had really arrived on the big stage.
“The IPL had nine venues. For a TV viewer at home, all nine look the same. The moment you add a drone, you get interesting connections of the stadium and the city. The relatability is a lot more. We were able to add augmented reality (AR) on a drone, live interactive graphics,” said Kulshreshtha.
That was just the beginning. With India’s long-awaited drone policy released this week, the domestic drone market is poised to take off. For Kulshreshtha, the policy means potentially bringing down the permissions requirement to a handful.
No more regulatory quagmire. While recreational drone usage will pick up, what the policy will really open up is the largely untapped business-to-business (B2B) market, giving drone companies the chance to innovate and truly spread their wings.
The initial runway
Some early uses of drones cropped up only around half a decade ago. Mumbai-based Francesco’s Pizzeria in 2014 used a four-rotor drone to deliver food from its Lower Parel outlet to a customer in nearby Worli. That drew sufficient buzz for the pizzeria but also the police, who said using drones to deliver orders posed a security risk.
Around the same time, several drone startups too started coming up. Soon, there were discussions on the need for regulating the space.
“The thing to highlight is the significant change in mindset from the time when the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) was probably thinking it didn’t have the bandwidth for unmanned aviation, to now where Jayant Sinha wants to bring the most progressive drone regulation anywhere in the world,” said Anirudh Rastogi, managing partner at Ikigai Law (formerly TRA Law). “We may be further from that, but that is the mindset change. It is phenomenal.” Sinha is the minister of state for civil aviation.
Rastogi was a pioneer in pushing for regulations to govern the unmanned drone sector. His firm, which specialises in nascent technology areas like drones and crypto currency, has extensively commented on the various draft guidelines proposed by the regulator.
For drone startups, the early days meant trying to understand how to navigate in an unregulated space.
The basic revelation was simple — use drones for ‘DDDR’ jobs, or dull, dirty, dangerous and repetitive tasks. So startups like Aarav Unmanned Systems and Skylark Drones targeted areas that required people to travel large terrains for inspections in sectors like mining, energy and agriculture.
Goldman Sachs Research estimates a $100 billion global market opportunity for drone companies by 2020.
Aarav CEO Vipul Singh and his cofounders spent two years at IIT-Kanpur understanding and experimenting with design systems and algorithms. Only in 2015 did they land their first corporate client.
“There was no financial backing, things took time. We were testing in a closed environment. But not for commercial applications. Almost at the end of the second year, we got our first project,” said Singh. Though startups managed to land pilots with a few private businesses and government projects, it was not smooth sailing, with conglomerates still waiting for clarity on regulations before pumping money into big drone projects.
Skylark Drones cofounders TR Mughilan and Mrinal Pai spent a good amount of time trying to figure out their business model before deciding that B2B was the way forward.
“Enterprise use case is where problems were not solved. In this case, the drone hardware is only 30-40% of the value chain. Everything beyond that is processing, interpreting data and figuring how to serve it to the end industry,” said Pai.
The B2B opportunity for drone startups is huge. For example, a mine survey could take a three or four member team four-six days, but a drone can do that in a day. All you need is a trained drone operator and a good data interpretation software.
While enterprises were cautiously testing the waters, government agencies too were jumping on to the bandwagon.
Given the fast pace of government projects, for instance, “you need to validate and monitor progress. That is where drones will play a big part,” said Kulshrestha of Quidich. “If you look at the Railways, there are 8-10 live tenders presently.”
Not just the Railways, the National Highways Authority of India and various state governments are floating tenders for various large projects. The building blocks were all set. All that was lacking was a proper regulatory framework.
The policy has landed
Given the dominating presence of China’s DJI drones, most Indian drone companies have decided to focus on building expertise in software solutions for various industries. The India Drone Policy 1.0, announced this week, looks to promote just that.
“In the global context, in terms of civilian drone hardware… no competitor has been able to match the Chinese hardware prowess. India’s policy is about how you fly drones and how you can create a globallycompetitive industry in our context, when we are not the ones who currently own the hardware,” said Tanuj Bhojwani, a volunteer at software policy think-tank iSPIRT.
Bhojwani led the Digital Sky effort, which is the central platform for all official communications between drone pilots and the DGCA. It will be used to register drones, request for permissions, and file reports and logs of all flights.
In probably a global first, India’s drone policy has introduced a ‘No Permission- No Takeoff’ (NPNT) clause. It means drone hardware have to be configured in such a way that unless regulatory permission is given, the drone cannot take off. Digital Sky has demarcated the Indian airspace into three distinct categories: Red (no-fly zones), Yellow (restricted permissions), and Green (all access).
Drones have been classified as Nano (less than or equal to 250 grams), Micro (250 grams to 2 kg), Small (2 kg to 25 kg), Medium (25 kg to 150 kg), and Large (greater than 150 kg). Drones heavier than 2 kg will require registration and permits to fly. These drones can be flown only by pilots who have cleared DGCA-approved training.
Also, drones must only be flown during daylight, while maintaining full visual line of sight at all times. The policy has also designated test sites across states to experiment.
According to Bhojwani, the policy creates “a high-trust environment” and allows for “unbundling of services.” “You can say ‘I want this picture in this area.’ An Uber-like platform for drones can come up. You put in a request and anyone in the country serves it. And you can trust them, because if they do not have permission they cannot fly. The drone itself won’t take off. It brings in trust,” said Bhojwani.
He believes the policy will usher in a new idea of “drone micro-entrepreneurs.” These drone entrepreneurs need not necessarily be experts in say agriculture, telecom or mining, all they need to know is how to expertly fly a drone. The data it mines can be separately inspected by experts or any end user.
But certain aspects of the policy could do with some clarity.
“They have stuck to daytime flying only. There are some use cases where nighttime flying should be permitted. Say for industrial uses, work does not stop at night. Even from a safety perspective, it is all contained. Also, indoor flying is permitted, but there is a clause which says ‘flying is allowed only in the daytime.’ Does it mean I can’t fly indoors at night?” said Rastogi of Ikigai Law.
Minor chinks apart, the drone industry is hopeful as the next version of the policy is expected to be more progressive. But most certainly, the policy has ushered in a bright start and the collective opinion is that the funding gates will open too.
“The level of investment is almost negligible in the drone space compared to startups from domains such as ecommerce and hyperlocal, as investor confidence was low given that there was no clarity on the legality of drones. That will change now. The confidence will go up. Going forward, the industry is going to be predominantly B2B,” said Vignesh Santhanam, marketing head at Quidich and president of Drone Federation of India, a collective of drone startups.
India Drone Policy 1.0: A Summary
*Digital Sky has demarcated the airspace into three distinct categories: Red (no-fl y zones), Yellow (restricted permissions) and Green (all access)
*Drones are classifi ed as Nano (less than or equal to 250 grams), Micro (250 grams to 2 kg), Small (2 kg to 25 kg), Medium (25 kg to 150 kg), and Large (greater than 150 kg)
*Nano category drones do not require to be registered for identifi -cation or permissions on the Digital Sky platform as long as they are fl own under the height of 15 metres
*Drones in the micro category need to be registered and ask for permission before fl ying. As long as these are fl own under 60m, no permit, pilot licences or security clearances are required
*Drones heavier than 2 kg have to be registered and need permits to fly. These can only be handled by a pilot who has cleared DGCA prescribed training courses. These drones can be fl own up to an altitude of 120 metres
*Drones must only be flown during daylight and maintain full visual line of sight at all times
*Drones must not drop/discharge material without explicit clearance Drones must not be operated from mobile platforms like moving vehicles
*Digital Sky is built around the principle of ‘No Permission-No Takeoff.’ Only if a drone is compliant with this principle, can it even be registered. Digital Sky will be in charge of handling fl ight permissions
*A preflight permission request will contain the geo-fence and timespan outside of which a drone cannot fl y. The drone will not turn on if it does not have a valid permission from Digital Sky
*A written notice to the local police station is also required prior to operations (with the exception of Nano drones below 15 metres)
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