The Next Big Thing Post COVID-19! Creating a Drone Economy in India

Drones in flight in downtown Reno, Nevada, during “shakedown” tests for NASA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Traffic Management project, or UTM. The final phase of flight tests, known as Technical Capability Level 4, ran from May through August 2019 to study how the UTM system can integrate drones into urban areas. Credits: NASA/Dominic Hart

Regulations and Potential Indigenous Solution for Enabling Hyper Growth

To support growth of drone-based services, the Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) first unveiled draft norms for usage of Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) in October 2017, which came intro effect on December 2018. A few key highlights from the latest revision of the document³ are:

India will need at least a million drone pilots by 2025, creating enormous employment opportunities

Consider requirements for talents to keep with the over 600 thousands drones⁴ in the sky already, India will need at least a million pilots by 2025 to support the demand for drone flights. Establishing a training and certification infrastructure is an urgent need. Leveraging India’s already established engineering education infrastructure and bringing them under central certification authority will ensure quality and also safeguard that India as a nation meets the demand of the future.

UTM Considerations for Indian Airspace Management

“UTM” stands for “Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) Traffic Management”. It’s an issue that is critically important to the drone industry. Urban population of India has seen a rise from 17.1% to 29.2% and number of people in India’s cities will overtake the rural population in the next three decades. Current Land Infrastructure is already exhausted and that automatically makes Aerial infrastructure the next best alternative. Population density / square kilometer makes it a mandate that we take a broad enough view to design a system that can serve 1.5B people. Without a foolproof system that ensures all stakeholders that manned aircraft and unmanned aircraft will be able to share the skies safely, proper “drone integration” into the airspace will not take place.

5Fs of UTM: Technology Considerations

Regulatory impact is currently one of the most important factors affecting the pace of adoption of drone-powered solutions by business and government entities. Drone regulations have changed in recent years from being treated as a niche hobby to becoming part of regular aviation operations, to a point where national authorities have started developing special regulatory frameworks to address the most urgent issues. The following guiding principles are critical for future success:

The biggest challenge is not designing the system, but that of testing the system in a controlled environment, simulating scenarios to quantify risk with current sets of policies/ infrastructure.

2019–2035: Expected Maturity Curve of RPA and Drones Ecosystem in India

For the next couple of years, RPA/UAV deployments are expected to be limited within “Visual line of sight” use cases (Infrastructure maintenance, Survey and Mapping, Agriculture, Media, mining etc) driven by start-up ecosystem and drone service companies.

Figure 1: Potential usage of drones in India

“Beyond Visual line of sight” drone operations have already gathered momentum in last mile delivery, Medical and Pathological delivery, Disaster recovery etc.

In addition, “Beyond Visual line of sight” operations have already gathered momentum⁶ and expected to be a reality by 2023. Other BVLOS use cases include, last mile delivery (3 out of 7 start-ups selected by DGCA for BVLOS solution are delivery companies), Medical and Pathological delivery (Zipline Partnered with Apollo), Disaster recovery (Bihar Flood) further strengthens the interest.

Business models like “Pay as You Fly” and “On demand Drone Services” are expected to evolve in the next 3–5 years, and push hyperlocal commerce with handsome financial incentive. This will create an uncontrollable chaos in the national airspace, if not addressed now.

Strategic Choices and Investments for a Future System

Following are the “arrowheads” that need deep experimentation and multi-layer advocacy, so that as a country, we make strategic choices and investments towards a homegrown UTM specific to India which can be integrated safely, efficiently into the national airspace.

Figure 2: Arrowheads for experimentation and multi-layer, multi-agency advocacy and collaboration

Summary

It’s important to take a step back and re-visualise how the future of sky will look like in the next 10 years and make strategic investments towards a homegrown UTM specific to India which can be integrated safely, efficiently into the national airspace. Low altitude aerial operation is sensitive and vulnerable to hyperlocal environment change. Designing a robust UTM system that can support BVLOS operations at scale needs active and joint participation from Government, Industry and Academic Partners.

References:

  1. Increasing need for smart avionics and rising defense spending would surge the growth of India unmanned aerial vehicle market, 6WResearch, August 2017
  2. India fastest growing market for unmanned aerial vehicles, Economic Times, 26 March 2018
  3. DGCA RPAS Guidance Manual, Revision, 3rd June 2019
  4. India has over 6 lakh rogue drones; agencies analysing sky fence, drone gun tech, Economic Times, 30 September 2019
  5. UBER will launch Airtaxi in India by 2023, UITP.org India, September 2018
  6. Government of India’s policy on delivery drones taking wing, Economic Times, 9 October 2019

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Dr. Santanu Bhattacharya

Dr. Santanu Bhattacharya

Chief Data Scientist at Airtel, Prof/Scholar at IISc & MIT, worked for NASA and Facebook, built start-ups, and future settler for Mars & Tatooine