New Delhi: From surveillance purposes during the peak of the Covid-19 lockdown, to public awareness broadcasts about the pandemic. From helping tackle last year’s massive locust onslaught, to aiding search efforts after last month’s floods in Uttarakhand.
The central government is increasingly deploying drones — or unmanned aerial vehicles — to aid governance. Helping them in this effort are India’s private drone companies.
During the Covid lockdown, for instance, drones were typically used for two services — patrolling and announcements. While little was known about the virus then, civic authorities across the country were faced with the mammoth task of ensuring social distancing, which continues to be among the key prevention measures.
On 5 May 2020, the Union Civil Aviation Ministry and watchdog Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) announced the GARUD portal that provided “fast-track approval to Covid-19-related drone operations”. The portal, the ministry said, would help applicants get “necessary approval from competent authorities in less than two weeks”.
Soon afterwards, 162 drone pilots across 14 districts in 10 states were involved, said Smit Shah, director of partnerships at the Drone Federation of India (DFI) — a not-for-profit body that represents the unmanned aviation industry in the country.
“The year 2020 has shown how drones can be used for the country’s benefits. Covid has been the most important factor for the drone industry, everyone showed support to our law enforcement agencies,” Shah told ThePrint.
The Indian drone industry is currently in its nascent stages. According to a Forbes report from June 2020, there are “200,000 recreational and commercial drones in the country, each costing anywhere from Rs 200,000 ($2,600) to Rs 20 million ($26,000) depending on size and functionality”. A July 2018 report by FICCI-Ernst & Young estimated that India’s drone industry will touch nearly $900 million by 2021.
Come March, the Union Ministry of Civil Aviation is looking to release the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Rules, 2021, to make drone operations simpler. The rising demand for drones, the government hopes, will set the stage for the development of a local manufacturing ecosystem that will reduce India’s reliance on imports for UAVs.
“With a three-pronged approach — demand, supply and regulations — to better India’s drone sector, we are working with government entities and companies to increase usage of drones, ensuring faster drone enlistment through the online DigitalSky Platform and also simplifying regulations to smoothen the flight approval process,” said Amber Dubey Joint Secretary in the Ministry of Civil Aviation.
The Digital Sky Platform is a “software-based self-enforcement” system that seeks to help minimise deviations from the Civil Aviation Regulations.
During the Covid pandemic
Shah cited Mumbai as an example to explain how drones aided government agencies during the pandemic.
“In Mumbai, we had 40 drone pilots flying from rooftops for a 2-km radius around them and that is the area they monitored. If there is a marketplace or playground under their area that is crowded, they could take a snapshot and send it to the main dashboard that law enforcement authorities had access to. This essentially increased efficiency of the police,” Shah said.
Nikunj Parashar, co-founder of Sagar Defence Engineering, a drone maker, said Mumbai Police approached them to help with spreading awareness about the pandemic. The company, he added, provided two drones to Mumbai, one to Delhi, one to Bengaluru, and three to Visakhapatnam.
“The police wanted the speaker on their cars to be fitted on the drones, but those are too heavy. So, we built a platform in just three days that could fly with such heavy loudspeakers,” Parashar said.
The drones had megaphones that were connected to the cell phones of police personnel who just needed to dial in and make their announcement. These drones can fly for 30 minutes, or five kilometres, at a height of upto 400 meters with a megaphone that can be heard within a 1.5 km radius. Announcements were made in Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati and Urdu.
While Covid was an exception, Dubey said drones are not being permitted in densely populated urban areas because safety and privacy issues remain.
“We are using them in open spaces such as agricultural fields, mines, pipelines, disaster relief, transmission towers etc, where they are hugely beneficial,” he said.
Aiding battle against locust swarms
Earlier last year, when the largest locust swarm in decades swarmed India, the Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) granted the agriculture department of Rajasthan — one of the first states affected — to use drones for anti-locust operations.
“When locusts come in, they are very fast, cover large areas and can wipe out crops at a large scale. It is important to mobilise things very quickly,” Shah said.
On 21 May, the MoCA provided fast-track approval, by 27 May, an inter-ministerial empowered committee had been formed that submitted its report to the agriculture ministry on 3 June. By 9 June, drones had reached Rajasthan.
“Five companies were given the order to use drones in seven zones in Rajasthan where 20-25 drone pilots were employed,” Deepak Bhardwaj, CEO, IoTechWorld Avigation — a manufacturer of wide-range drones — told ThePrint. Bhardwaj’s company was responsible for one zone — Bikaner — which was covered by five drone pilots.
Drones are also being used in the SVAMITVA Scheme, which was launched by the central government on 24 April 2020 with an aim to “provide ‘record of rights’ to village household owners possessing houses in inhabited rural areas in villages and issuance of property cards to the property owners”.
As of now, the scheme is being implemented as a pilot programme in one lakh villages across Maharashtra, Karnataka, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab and Rajasthan, with an aim to cover 6.62 lakh villages nationwide by the end of financial year 2023-24.
Often described as the future of aviation, drones can also be extremely beneficial in agriculture (by monitoring crop health, estimating yield data, and more), healthcare (by providing medicines and personal protective gear in remote places), and law enforcement, as witnessed during the 2019 Delhi riots.
They can also play a key role in disaster management — to help with mapping, assessing damage, as well as rescue operations — and were deployed in the wake of last month’s Uttarakhand floods.
Drone policy in India
According to Dubey, a total of 23,582 drones have been registered under the Drone Acknowledgement Number (DAN) scheme, which was launched on 14 January 2020 and requires everyone with a UAV to register their device with the government.
The registration rule is driven by privacy concerns. It was first listed among the rules set under the Civil Aviation Requirements (CAR) for drones, which were announced in August 2018 and came into effect in December 2018.
Among other things, the rules also set a height ceiling and list no-go areas.
A draft policy to develop an air traffic management system, released by the Ministry of Civil Aviations in December last year, aims to “coordinate drone flight paths, manage traffic and provide weather and terrain data as an extension of the current Air Traffic Management (ATM) Services”.
“By 31 March, we may be able to release the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Rules, 2021 which will make drone operations simpler,” Dubey told ThePrint.
Dubey, however, sought to highlight a “harsh truth” about India’s dependence on imports for drone components. “Many drones are imported or assembled in India with foreign components. It takes years to build a domestic supply chain like in automotive or consumer durables,” he said. “With demand for drones rising exponentially in India, we will have enough critical mass or local component manufacturing under Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan.”