Drones are a God-sent opportunity in India, says Dr. Kota of IIT Varanasi
In 2018, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) issued guidelines that regulate the use of drones in Indian airspace. Since then, the drone industry, especially in the startup ecosystem, has seen significant growth.
“In fact, there are reports saying that India has the fastest-growing drone ecosystem in the whole world. That is a very positive indication,” said Dr. Kota Harinarayana, Chairman of the Board of Governors of IIT Varanasi, at Karnataka's flagship annual technology event Bengaluru Tech Summit 2020 (BTS2020) on November 19, 2020.
Dr. Kota was speaking during a fireside chat at the event with Professor S. Sadagopan, Director, IIITB. They discussed the status of the drone ecosystem, particularly for startups in India.
While there are various applications for the usage of drones in agriculture, disaster management, health, and ecommerce, its applications in agritech seem to be the most exciting in India. According to Dr. Kota, there are a few reasons why this is so. As per a recent report, the second-largest number of agritech startups are in India, after the US.
He said that satellite imagery works well for very large farms. But for an average Indian farm size being two to three acres of land, satellite imagery is quite inaccurate, which was the biggest obstacle in farming productivity improvement. Enter drones - tactical vehicles that are very nimble and don’t need large spaces for take-off or landing.
“Drones can cover even half an acre of land. In this context, the two ‘Ds’ have done a great job — drones and data analytics. When you use them together, it is an ideal enabler of productivity in India, more so because of the small size of the farm,” said Dr. Kota.
They went on to discuss how Indian agriculture is not in a healthy state today. Four years back, 17 percent of GDP was from agriculture. It has since dropped down to 15 percent two years ago.
“We are using a lot of our resources, but productivity is low. Close to 80 percent of our country’s water resources and 29 percent of electricity is used for agriculture. That is worrying. India’s application of fertilisers and pesticides are also high, which, in turns, impacts the quality of food grains. This has led to a decrease in exports,” said Dr. Kota.
A drop in water resources is adding to the problem of productivity. Dr. Kota said that in the last 10 years, groundwater levels have come down by 81 percent in Tamil Nadu, by 90 percent in Western Uttar Pradesh, and 40 percent in Karnataka.
“The land availability isn’t increasing as well. We have a grim situation at hand. Under these conditions, the drone is a god-send opportunity that will help with carrying out precision agriculture,” he said.
When asked by Professor Sadagopan if he saw India emerging as a world leader for drone usage in agriculture, Dr. Kota said that it will help improve India’s agricultural productivity. “It will enable precision agriculture, reduce water, fertiliser and pesticide consumption, and double productivity in the next five years. All this is possible only when drone and data analytics is linked.”
He also added that there is a need for high endurance drones in India and startups are now working on improving battery efficiency. “Earlier, we used to import every component of the drone or the drone as a whole. Today, other than the electronic components of drones, which are still being imported, India is in control of the designing, developing, manufacturing, testing, and validating of drones within the country. This gives the country control over the cost, which helps provide cost-effective solutions to farmers,” said Dr. Kota.
The fireside also delved on the special challenges Indian farms face, being small in size - winds, geofencing, among others.
When it comes to disaster management using drones, Dr. Kota spoke about the recent invasion of locusts in Rajasthan, and how drones were used to spray insecticides, which showed positive results.
Another major area for drones is providing medical emergency support. In 2019, there was a project from the University of Pennsylvania that demonstrated a drone that could be sent to an accident location much faster than an ambulance and provide a kit to prevent blood loss.
“Close to 40 percent of deaths from road accidents happen because of blood loss. The weight of the kit is only 200 grams only, but it can save lives,” said Dr. Kota. This project was successful last year and the second phase to increase the speed of delivery is in progress.
Another area where drones can create an impact is in the field of organ transportation, especially in cities like Bengaluru, where traffic is difficult to manage. “The heart has a low shelf life and you lose precious time on the road. As a result, the quality of the transplant reduces. Drones can transport organs quickly, improve the quality of the transplant and survival rates increase,” said Dr. Kota. This project is under progress and is awaiting funding.
“At the end of the day, as technologists, the most satisfying part is how many lives we can save. Only then will we be assured that technology has truly delivered,” concluded Professor Sadagopan.