In May 2014, Mumbai became the first Indian city to have a margarita pizza delivered via a drone. Flying over the traditional delivery system made sense in a city known for its jammed roads and bustling residents.
What started as a simple ‘flying device’ a decade back – a motor and a propeller powered with an image recognition software, being flown around the campus by young engineering students, is today a technology that has unprecedented potential to not just disrupt the traditional goods delivery system, but all sectors, including, healthcare, manufacturing, defense, agriculture, media and entertainment.
However, is the Indian ecosystem conducive for drones? Is the government taking any steps to make the environment more drone-friendly? How is India placed vis-à-vis global trends? What are the various drone applications being tested and implemented by startups in India? Is the investor community supportive towards this technology?
The response to these questions will determine how fast and how well India fares in adoption of drone technology in the coming years, and how various stakeholders – including the investors, government & policy makers, end-consumers, startup community, and enterprises can enable India to fly high with drones.
Government regulations and policies – key to unlocking the full potential of drones
On August 27, 2018, the Ministry of Civil Aviation, Government of India, released the National Drone Policy, 1.0 and made flying drones in India legal. This landmark decision paved way for a wider application of drone technology in India. While the new drone policy has stirred excitement in terms of new market opportunities and interesting use cases – reduction of human intervention in sectors such as aviation, gathering precise spatial data to enable city planning and administration and so on, such policies need to have a precise safety and security framework to ensure they are not misused.
While the drone policy 2.0 establishes an intricate system of application and approval procedures, it does not account for thorough monitoring of drones. It also ignores the implications of free movement of smaller drones, which have been exempted from many of the regulatory procedures.
Further, India has witnessed several instances of unidentified drone activity in the past – which may be a huge privacy concern in the coming years.
Drones may be misused for unethical activities such as corporate espionage, trespassing, surveillance, unauthorised photography and burglary.
Finally, the policy does not address the rapid advances in Artificial Intelligence and its effect on drone-based solutions – for instance, monitoring how drones collect, use, store and share data.
India’s new drone policy can definitely benefit from stricter rules on surveillance. In the United States, several states have placed limits on drone-based surveillance, requiring some form of a warrant from the police to operate drones.
Rhode Island has proposed detailed legislation prohibiting the use of drones for facial recognition or capturing any images. Such measures, as well as a more comprehensive system for approving applications, renewing permits, alerting the agencies concerned to deal with emergencies, and recording the history of a vehicle, can strengthen the policy’s applications. This can help India use drones effectively for not just aerial mapping but also in disaster management, traffic control, policing, security, environmental studies, and agriculture.
Drone use-cases in India and globally
Despite the drone policy not being fool-proof, with some clarity on regulations now Indian companies are increasingly turning to drone-based solutions and contributing towards the growth of the drown ecosystem in India.
According to a study conducted by UnearthInsight, it is predicted that the market for commercial end-use of drones in India might hit the $1 billion mark by 2020.
In India, drones-based solutions are being explored across industries – for commercial applications, as well as by the government to be leveraged in the defense space. For instance, in healthcare, drones are being utilised to carry diagnostic samples.
In fact, last week, in a first of its kind development, a drone successfully transported a single unit of blood from a remote primary health center in Uttarakhand’s Tehri district to a hospital’s blood bank 32 km away. The drone made the journey in 18 minutes compared to 50-60 minutes via road.
India’s Defense Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has also developed its own domestic UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) program. The project aims to develop a domestic arsenal to replace and augment the existing fleet of vehicles. For example, DRDO Lakshya is a target drone used for discreet aerial reconnaissance and target acquisition.
Currently, commercial drones are taking flight in India through enterprise. Zomato, one of India’s biggest foodtech firms has committed to setting up a drone-based delivery network in the country.
Tata Steel is working with Skylark Drones, a Bengaluru-based data analytics startup, to deploy drones at their Noamundi iron ore mines in Jharkhand, for compliance reporting and monitoring volumetric production.
Skylark is also working with a major bauxite company, which is using their drone-based monitoring solution to ensure all equipment and manpower is being deployed at mines safely. Chennai-based DeTect Technologies has developed its own positioning system that works like an internal GPS of sorts, allowing its drones to monitor structures like a boiler inside a plant, autonomously. DeTect is working with Hindustan Petroleum, Indian Oil and GAIL.
From a global perspective, drone solutions have the high potential to replace $127 billion in current business services and labor costs across multiple industries. Drones are being effectively used in agriculture sector in Netherlands helping them become second largest exporter of agriculture produce, infrastructure development, warehousing and inventory tracking, forestry, insurance claim inspection for buildings or larger facilities, defense space and so on. Companies like Amazon, Facebook, Google etc are investing over $200 Million in the use of drones for delivery and expanding internet access, but for the most part these applications are in the testing phase.
Are drone startups in India flourishing?
According to UnearthInsight, there are 100 drone-based startups in India (compared to 681 in the US and 129 in China), of which less than 20 percent are funded yet 70 percent are generating revenues and we estimate 50 percent will break even in next 2 years.
This reflects increasing adoption by mining, insurance companies, manufacturing both organised and unorganised. The last six months has also witnessed increased adoption from sports and real estate sector where players like Prestige, Shobha are using drones for monitoring progress of projects and showcase progress pictures/videos to customers.
As per UnearthInsight survey eight percent of listed companies are expected to test or demo start-up solutions over two to three years and believe adoption can expand if start-ups can follow an outcome-based pricing models which will be a long-term win for both industry and start-up ecosystem.
Average pricing for B2C drones is going down significantly however commercial drones pricing is difficult to control due to complexity of embedded system and software which requires upgrades.
Forty percent of the startup CEOs surveyed said that the investor support in general is low in India, especially when compared to the evolving HR tech, Travel Tech and E-commerce space. This is why currently, majority of the drone-based startups are bootstrapped companies. The growth-level a drone startup would need ranges from $5 to 10 million. So far in India, the single highest investment in the industry has been $10 million in Ideaforge by Infosys Ltd.
One factor causing this is the fact that the quality of commercially executable and patentable solutions is low. The confidence of any enterprise or even the investor depends upon the quality of solutions the startups come up with, market scope and the risks involved.
Considering the same, it is time for drone-based startups in India to explore different pricing models, partnership models, sector agnostic solutions and global use cases. While earlier a lack of clarity in rules was the impediment as the use of drones was restricted to defense and security, now with the policy in place, we believe private enterprises are going to pick up in a big way.
However, the key to growth will be enterprise adoption and a fail fast model. In fact, the Indian Institute of Drones (IID) powered by the Government of India specialises in training professionals in drone technology and gives them a platform to carryout UAV piloting and operations with great emphasis on safety and security issues. Unearth has written focused report on deployment of drone technology by industries, case studies on adopter enterprises and startup profiles with financial analysis, funding and key metrics to assess impact on enterprise operations and margins.
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)