Opportunity takes flight: A drone economy for India beyond COVID-19


India is one of the top drone importing nations. While the value of drone imports is driven by military imports, with the new regulatory policy, India is witnessing tremendous growth in the use of drones for commercial (B2B, B2G, B2C) & recreational applications. BIS Research predicts that the market for commercial drones will potentially supersede the military market by 2021, reaching approx. 900 million USD.

Supporting the growth of drone-based services, the Director-General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) unveiled the draft norms for usage of Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) in October 2017 (effective from Dec 2018). A few key highlights from the latest revision of the document include: (a) UAVs to be classified in five segments basis their weight and payload, (b) All drones heavier than 250 grams to be registered with a Unique Identification Number (UIN) and (c) Permit requirements for commercial drone operations, except for those in the Nano category (flown below 50 feet) and Micro category (flown below 200 feet).

At this point, bringing regulatory certainty is an important factor for growth but not the only one. We must adopt of a more holistic approach to understand the situation in its entirety and to carefully define the roadmap for growth.

To begin with, consider the requirement of at least one million pilots by 2025 that needs to match over 600 thousand drones that are already in operation. Establishing a training and certification centre and bringing them under central certification authority is an urgent requirement. This will ensure quality and authenticity. Applications of drone technologies will evolve rapidly throughout the next decade. A proactive, “first time right” mindset will ensure that drone technologies deliver at their highest potential.

UTM Considerations for Indian Airspace Management and the 5 “F”s of UTM

“UTM” stands for “Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) Traffic Management”. It’s an issue that is critically important to the drone industry. Population density / square kilometre in India makes it a mandate that we take a broad enough view to design a system that can serve 1.5B people. A proper regulatory system for “drone integration” into the airspace will only take place once we have a robust system that ensures all stakeholders (manned and unmanned aircrafts) will be able to share the skies safely. The following guiding principles are critical for future success:

  • Future Proof: Intelligent and scalable technology that supports tactical needs and meets strategic demands for 2035 and beyond
  • Failure Proof: Tamperproof solution that safeguards Public and National Security
  • Fungible: Enables seamless integration between multiple higher airspace systems/Policies/other UTMs/Anti Drone Systems
  • Flexible: Supports unseen and unheard demands of the future
  • Fit for purpose: Democratic, supports innovation, creates jobs and is accessible to all

2020–2035: Expected Maturity Curve of RPA and Drone-Ecosystem in India

For the next couple of years, RPA/UAV deployments are expected to be limited within “Visual line of sight” use cases driven by start-up ecosystem and companies providing drone services. In India, the six areas where we expect drones to be used are Agriculture, Insurance, Entertainment, Utilities, Mining and Insurance.

The annual economic cost of traffic congestion in India exceeds Rs. 60,000 cr. This makes low altitude aerial mobility the next best alternative. Uber has already identified India as one of their air taxi test markets. In addition, valuable applications of “Beyond Visual line of sight” (BVLOS) operations have already gathered momentum and expected to be a reality by 2023. 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) and Disaster recovery (Bihar Flood). BVLOS operations will fuel unprecedented innovations primarily because there is no/limited entry barrier for drones as services (especially in the Micro- small-medium segment).

Way Forward

It’s important to take a step back and re-visualize the future of sky in the next 10 years to make strategic investments for a homegrown UTM specific to India. The following “arrowheads” need deep experimentation and multi-layer advocacy, so that as a country, we make strategic investment choices towards a homegrown UTM specific to India. This UTM should to be integrated safely and efficiently into our national airspace.

Low altitude aerial operation is sensitive and vulnerable to hyperlocal environment change. Designing a robust UTM system to support BVLOS operations at scale needs active and joint participation from government, industry, and academic partners.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Economic Times – ET Edge Insights, its management, or its members

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