Tech startup's autonomous drones take to the sky for industrial survey
Drones are here, there and everywhere. These flying devices are being increasingly used for a wide range of applications — rescue operations, capturing photos at sporting events and parties, carrying medicines, and aerial spraying of disinfectants and chemicals to fight off locusts. During the lockdown, drones were used by the police to ensure lockdown compliance. Drones are also being used for industrial inspection and surveillance, and this is the space that excites Delhi-based VECROS.
, founded by Besta Prem Sai and Rajashree Deotalu, is a drone-technology startup that helps with industrial inspection using autonomous drones enabled by computer vision, thereby reducing the need for manual monitoring.
Usually, during an inspection, a pilot plans the path across which the drone has to move and collect information. Then the pilot operates the drone a few times to validate if the video data collected by the drone is useful for 3D mapping and survey.
VECROS has automated this process with pilotless drones. The area to be mapped is pre-planned and simulated in a cloud-based web app. The pilot just gives a go-ahead and the drones fly up in the air, collect videos, and get back.
The startup has an operating system that uses AI and computer vision algorithms to make intelligent decisions, so that drones can match pilots’ capabilities.
“Our drones complete the task in lesser time at a faster speed. Inaccuracies in data collection are also reduced due to autonomous planning,” explains Prem. With autonomous drones, the need and budget for training pilots also reduce considerably, he says.
How VECROS came about
An IIT Delhi graduate in engineering physics, Prem started working on drone technology in 2016. He and a couple of friends came together and started an aeromodelling club, at IIT Delhi, to train and build drones and participate in competitions.
Eager to know more, Prem took up a design innovation fellowship at IIT Delhi to research drones. That’s when Prem realised a key problem that drones faced — GPS navigation. Any disruption in GPS connection can lead to the drone falling, colliding with an obstacle, or flying away uncontrollably.
Prem was keen on building a drone without GPS. He also wanted to reduce manual intervention and automate drones. Thus began VECROS in 2018, which he co-founded with Rajashree, a graduate of Visvesvaraya National Institute of Technology in Nagpur.
The company started with a few students working on drones from the IIT Delhi campus, where the first aerial robot of Vecros was developed.
How the drones work
VECROS has a system that takes feed from cameras placed all over the drone and processes it to access the drone’s environment. This is called ‘simultaneous localisation and mapping’ (SLAM). It is similar to GPS but uses images and their properties as the guidance system. This system is found in satellites and space stations. The drone also has a SIM card facility to ensure connectivity over the long range.
The drone records a high-resolution feed of the entire land that it’s surveying. After traversing the terrain, the drone collates everything and generates a vector tile or a 3D map that’s stored in the cloud.
Using customised software, customers get access to a dashboard that inspects all the analytics. On the dashboard, everything that the drone sees and records is streamed through a cloud service. Then reports are generated, according to the user’s needs.
“Sitting in the comfort of your office, at the click of a button, drones can take off autonomously and go to the designated locations to perform the job and come back to you. This is our USP — having one person man more than 10 drones at the same time. This already exists in the US and Europe,” says Prem.
VECROS says it has designed drones from scratch — from CPU and motors to mechanical frames. It has also patented the designs.
The company’s solutions are intended for industrial AI applications that centre around surveillance and can be deployed in the mining, construction, and oil and gas industries.
Drone from Vecros
The growth story
In 2020, VECROS won the Sterlite Innovation Challenge, conducted by Sterlite Technologies, which used the drones made by VECROS for fibre surveillance.
Since then, the company’s drones have been deployed for solar panel surveillance, under-bridge surveillance, and crash site surveillance on a pilot basis. Agricultural inspection is on the cards.
After two years of R&D, VECROS has opened itself to commercial projects. Nokia has placed an order for 200 drones for cell phone tower inspection.
VC firm 100xVC invested a standard cheque size of Rs 25 lakh in VECROS in December 2020. VECROS also raised angel funding from March 2021 to September 2021. The total funding the company has raised so far is Rs 1 crore.
In India, the company competes with Ideaforge, Asteria and Skydio, and DJI globally.
Joining the startup ecosystem
In September 2020, VECROS became part of the Nvidia Inception/Accelerator Programme. Nvidia is now a hardware and technology partner of the drone startup.
In December 2020, VECROS became a part of Mobility Startup Incubation by NSRCEL and Maruti Suzuki India Limited. It also made it to the Microsoft for Startups hub in August 2021.
The drone market
The global drone market is said to be dominated by the US, China, and Israel. According to BIS Research, the global drone market was estimated to reach $28.47 billion in FY21-22. India is said to account for 4.25 percent of it. India’s commercial drone market is projected to grow at a CAGR of 12.4 percent during 2020-2026, according to the Indian Commercial Drone Market report.
In the pipeline
VECROS is working on a crop analysis and prediction software for the agriculture sector. The company is also working on a system whereby the drone can charge itself in a ‘drone hub’ and continue the inspection after it is charged. “We plan to extend the operational time of the drone using this,” says Prem.
(The story has been updated with additional inputs.)