04/02/2019 12:42 AM IST | Updated 04/02/2019 12:26 PM IST

From Organ Transport To Medicines, India's Drone Sector Takes Off

Drone regulation in India is moving forward steadily, but is it meeting the needs of a growing industry?

Skylark Drones

BENGALURU, Karnataka —“In the next five to ten years, the drone industry is going to be comparable to the computer industry in the 1980s,” said 27-year-old Mughilan Ramasamy, one of the founders of Bengaluru-based Skylark Drones. “Right now the drone industry in India is still mainly a hobby, or a proof of concept. Once the regulations are fully in place then it will take off as a business.”

Now that the second round of the drone policy is being discussed, the first steps are being taken, and Ramasamy feels that the drone equivalents of enterprise and personal computing will now emerge.

Commercial operations for the transport of organs and life-saving medicines, and drone ports to facilitate the take-off and landing of remotely-piloted aircraft are some of the updates to India’s drones policy, as announced a couple of weeks ago by Jayant Sinha, Minister of State for Civil Aviation.

Companies like Zomato and Amazon have been looking at ways to use drones to carry out deliveries as well, and last year, Uber suggested that it is considering drone deliveries for its food delivery platform, Uber Eats. As of now though, delivery of food through drones is not permitted.

The drone policy 2.0 is still a draft though, and the ground (or air) reality is that the use cases for drones are likely to remain restricted to photography and surveys in the near future. That’s the bet that Skylark Drones is making. The company doesn’t sell drones—instead, it provides them as a service, for aerial surveys by real estate companies, and government projects, along with other similar projects. Some clients include Larsen and Toubro, for road surveys, Tata Steel, for mining, agricultural surveys and surveys for solar power development. It’s also working with a few state governments although this is still at early stages.

Not just quadcopters

When we talk about drones, the first image that pops into the head is of quadcopters like the ones from DJI, which have become the norm in drone photography, with great range, intuitive controls, and smooth operation. Skylark Drones does have some of these but it also makes its own fixed wing drones which can fly much further, and much longer, although they can’t hover unlike a quadcopter.

“We make these in-house, it was something that I was playing around with back in college, and then I started to think about how to make a business out of this,” explained Skylark’s Ramasamy.

Skylark Drones’ office is in IKP Eden, a co-working space in Bengaluru’s Koramangala neighborhood, meant for hardware startups. In the same building, there are companies making 3D printers, a specialist coffee company, and personal assistant robots. The basement of the building hosts a makerspace, which includes a number of tools for building prototypes without having to leave the building.

The drones that Skylark built are really interesting. Built out of a thermocol-like material, the drones are fairly big, but light, and can be packed down into a small trunk to be transported on trains.

The design is meant to cut through the air smoothly allowing it to glide along without using up too much of the precious battery—that, along with the engine and camera, are the main weights on the drone—and it looks a little bit like a giant version of a child’s toy. However, it’s one that can fly for an hour, and around 20kms.

Skylark Drones

Only a fancy dream?

In an earlier interview, Lt Cdr John Livingstone (Retd), Founder & Director of Indian Institute of Drones, said, “Drone 2.0 is only a fancy dream. We have very critical issues that the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) has not resolved after releasing CAR 1.0.  Their website is absolutely unfriendly. Instead of helping the industry, the regulations have troubled the startups. Investors are confused. Drone operators are confused. Certification for drone pilots is unclear. The DGCA should be concentrating on removing the limitations of CAR 1.0 and implementing it, instead of releasing something new that is not even practical in the near future from India’s perspective.”

Another stakeholder, in the environmental sector who did not wish to be named since it could hurt the company, added that the rules are being created by interest groups that are looking at their specific business needs, rather than having a broader vision of what can help the industry in India.

However, Skylark’s Ramasamy disagreed. As one of the stakeholders who worked with iSPIRT to help come up with India’s drone policies, Ramasamy said that the regulations already have “good enough bandwidth for 90% for the drone operations taking place in India. There are digital permissions that will make it easy for automatic permissions, and it is in accordance with what the world is doing.”

“There are obviously teething troubles in the implementation, and issues will happen, but better they happen now than later.”