By Siddharth Sivaraman
The Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) not long ago indicated that India will soon take the first step towards paving the way for drones engaged in e-deliveries and air taxis operations, the DGCA has invited expression of interest from experts who can conduct experiments to understand beyond the visual line of sight operations in Indian environment. This is much needed progress in the fossilized and traditional safety-first thinking of the regulator which had stifled innovation for long. It was only after a sustained campaign by the Indian UAV community consisting of manufacturers, service providers, industry chambers and enthusiasts that the first set of regulations were enacted roughly two years ago and much needs to be done.The single window system of clearance for permissions set up by the DGCA is yet to become operational.
India’s drone journey which began more than two decades ago, deploys one of the largest fleet of military drones in the world, its journey in the civilian and commercial arena has only just begun. India with its smart city program, spread across its diverse landscape, provides an ideal laboratory for the deployment of UAVs, and in keeping with the global trend of transforming existing cities into smart cities, nearly 100 cities have been identified for transformation.
Prior to deployment of drones, it is important to understand that a UAV is a platform to carry the sensors which forms the core of the desired operation, minus the sensors – it is just a fancy toy. With the miniaturization of sensor technology, UAVs are finding new ways to solve myriad problems and with the advent of low cost 3D printing technology and off the shelf kits, the design and development costs have gone down drastically, making deployments possible for wide-ranging applications. UAVs today carry advanced sensors such as hyperspectral imager, SAR and LIDAR which are beginning to revolutionize agriculture, search and rescue, town and country planning. The phrase precision agriculture is now synonymous with the use of drones which are being deployed for crop spraying, dusting, monitoring, and crop insurance. Terra Drone India said it has completed the aerial survey of 4,200 sq km of agricultural land for the water resources department of the Maharashtra Krishna Valley Development Corporation (MKVDC). The survey helped government officials get a clear picture of the crops sown and the type of irrigation used and allows MKVDC to update its archaic maps in half the time of traditional surveying methods. Along with sensors, the development and integration of sense and avoid technologies, UAVs are poised for a quantum leap in drone delivery performing complex flight operations in the national airspace.
The use of UAVs in Geo-spatial surveying and geographical information systems are revolutionizing the way smart cities operate by bringing down cost for such operations. A land survey which took weeks and months done manually by a surveyor can now be done in less than an hour. UAVs have provided critical support in search and rescue operations post-natural disasters complementing search and rescue helicopters, making them an essential part of the NDRF tool box. UAVs can accurately relay real-time information which plays an important role in the civil security of cities and provides the civic administration to deploy proactive measures rather than reactive measures – such a decision-making process is a hallmark of a smart city concept. In India, UAVs have played an important role in crowd control measures for the police during mega events involving religious gatherings. With the integration of UAVs with mobile applications, forensic software, secure and reliable wireless networks, can help smart cities become a safe place. In China, they are being inducted as firefighting equipment on an experimental basis. Recently the Madras High Court issued an order directing the government of Tamil Nadu to speed up the deployment of UAVs in areas affected by illegal sand mining, sending a clear signal that the judiciary has well caught on to the effectiveness of drone technologies.
According to CISCO, smart cities “use digital technology to connect, protect and enhance the lives of the citizens, the UN has estimated that by the year 2050, 68% of the world population will be living in urban areas according to data from the United Nations”. In a such a scenario drones become an ever-increasing important piece of the puzzle for ushering in efficiencies in the management of the urban environment.
If India has to build new or convert its existing cities into smart cities, then the deployment of UAVs becomes crucial. UAVs are able to quickly collect highly accurate data and using the latest software are able to aggregate, analyze, deliver accurate and detailed data for the planner. They are used from asset management to programming the most efficient delivery routes. Last year, Zomato, the food delivery service provider acquired a drone company, Tech Eagle, a Lucknow-based startup to help create “hub- to- hub delivery network powered by hybrid multirotor drones”. UAVs become effective tools only when they are available at the grassroots levels of every arm of government and civil society operating within a set of well-defined rules and regulations. With the recent advances in cloud computing, AI, wireless sensors, networked unmanned systems, big data, and Internet of things, billions of devices are being connected together, providing a substantial opportunity for UAVs in smart city program. In India, the application of UAVs has found synergies with inspection of infra projects such as solar and wind energy projects, construction of highways, bridges and “IIT Roorkee is now developing drones to make your rail journey safer”. A young Kolkata based company, M/S Kadet Defence Systems, has mapped over 350 Km of terrain for the IL&FS intended for a highway development for the National Highway Authority of India, and according to its CEO and founder Avdhesh Khaitan, “Drones are a small step to enhance the life of its residents in leaps and bound”. Recently, drones have been deployed by the Indian Institute for Toxicology to collect water samples to study water pollution.
It is said that manned flight will be soon replaced by unmanned flight as the technologies mature at break neck speed, and all passenger and cargo aircrafts will be optionally piloted. A pilot will be taking over the command and control during the flight if at all there is a need to do so. While considerable research is being done by aerospace majors such as Airbus, Thales and Boeing for the next generation UAV technologies involving air taxies, countries such as UAE have taken lead to implement the technology in their urban environment. The US Army is already considering using drone for medevac of soldiers from the battle field, and it will not be long before unmanned air taxis become the norm. Netherlands has successfully experimented by transporting defibrillators via drones to patients in distress and now India is also considering to transport organs for transplant via drones and is currently studying the routes to set up the required infrastructure atop hospital roofs that would serve as drone ports to receive the medical cargo.
The likely size of the Indian UAV market will be around USD 886 million by 2021 with estimated global market touching USD 21 Billion. The biggest game changer is the number for drone application which are poised to touch nearly a USD 100 Billion. There are nearly 50,000 drones operating illegally in India which is a matter of grave concern. The Indian drone market is projected to grow at a CAGR of 18% with investor activity expected to take off once the DGCA passes the new set of regulations involving drone delivery and BVLOS operations. If we look at the current scenario and the developments taking place in India and internationally, we can say with confidence that drone technology in sync with smart cities can significantly enhance the life of a nation by improving efficiencies.
The development of the drone industry is a top priority in Prime Minister Modi’s Vision 2024 and to this effect, the Ministry of Defence has invited industry inputs to help set up Drone testing facilities across India. Such a facility will provide immense value addition to all players in the drone segment right from manufacturers, service providers, software developers, sensor manufactures alike who will be able to test and certify their products before they enter the market. This was by far the single biggest missing link in the whole drone ecosystem. The day is not far when Unmanned systems will become everyday systems.