Not too long ago, drones were either classified as expensive military equipment or small recreational toys. However, things have drastically changed over the last few years as drones, officially known as Remotely Piloted Aerial Systems (RPAS), have been found to be a practical solution for applications across several industries. This change in how drones are viewed can be primarily attributed to their capability to generate on-demand digital aerial data, rapidly, in a cost-effective manner.
It would be fair to say that the development, adoption, and usage of drones are still at a nascent stage. However, it is also true that drones are providing disruptive solutions that are bringing pen-and-paper operations into the digital age.
The last few years have seen drones becoming an integral part of the operations of many government and private establishments, especially in industry sectors that had been technologically stagnant due to one reason or another. Drones are performing dull, dirty, and dangerous jobs in an efficient and timely manner, and thus becoming a better alternative to traditional ways of working.
Some of the current applications of drones include surveillance & security, inspection and monitoring of critical assets, surveying, and logistics. These applications are across multiple industry sectors, such as defence and homeland security, agriculture, oil & gas, energy & utilities, telecommunications, geospatial surveying, mining, construction, and transport. The adoption of drone technology in India in these sectors has moved from an initial exploratory phase to a stage where businesses are now intent on embracing it as they discover and appropriately utilize its scope and potential.
Today, drones in India are being used in areas ranging from monitoring crop health for precision farming to inspecting hundreds of kilometers of gas pipelines to providing border security to delivering vital healthcare supplies in time. The government of India has been an early adopter of this technology through widespread usage of drones for digitizing land records as part of the SVAMITVA scheme, mandating the use of drone surveys in mines and highway construction, and promoting Drone Shakti and Kisan Drone initiatives for agricultural transformation, among others. With such a diverse spectrum of use cases, it is estimated that the market for drones and related solutions in the country will grow to over ?15,000 crores in the next 3-4 years.
Recognizing the potential of this emerging and strategic technology sector, the government has the vision to make India a global drone hub by the end of the decade. With this goal in mind, the Ministry of Civil Aviation has, starting with the Drone Rules 2021, introduced a slew of policies and regulations to liberalize the manufacturing and operation of drones in the country. This is exactly the support needed by the industry to increase the capability, supply, and proliferation of drone technology while also generating new-age employment opportunities for the youth of the country. As the sector grows, the drone industry can generate more than 10,000 direct jobs in the near-term, including drone pilots, data analysts, hardware and software developers, and manufacturing, service & repair technicians.
With a large potential market, a strong forte in software and solution development, and a technical workforce for Drone-as-a-Service delivery, India has the right platform and resources to create and deliver drone-based solutions at scale.
Opportunities, such as creating specialized and sandboxed test sites in public-private partnerships for testing new drone and counter-drone technologies and testing complex operations, such as beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) operation can accelerate this development, as well as attract global players.
India must also attract a component manufacturing ecosystem (batteries, electric motors, electro-optics, and sensors) which can be leveraged to create drone products and economies of scale that can compete globally. Since drones are essentially a mix of mobile phones and electric vehicles, steps taken to incentivize component manufacturing in these sectors will give a much-needed boost to drone manufacturing as well.
The future looks bright for the drone sector in India. The next few years are going to be crucial for scaling the adoption of drones and the industry must ensure that it promotes the use of drones in a responsible, safe manner, while providing effective outcomes to the end users.
(The author is Director & Co-Founder, Asteria Aerospace)