Drones have been around in India for a few years now. But, it is the easing of regulations governing their usage in August that is driving a rapid rise in their use.
Vipul Singh, co-founder and CEO, Aarav Unmanned Systems, and an industry veteran expects the market to grow at a compounded annual growth rate of 50 percent for the next five years, to become a $5-billion market.
In an interview with Moneycontrol, Singh said that India could become a manufacturing hub for drones if the government ensures the smooth implementation of the regulations and supports skill development.
Edited excerpts of the interview:
Your company won the contract to carry out a survey in five states under the government’s Survey of Villages and Mapping with Improvised Technology in Village Areas (SVAMITVA) scheme. What is the size of the contract, what is the deadline you are working with and what were the challenges you have faced in its execution so far?
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It is a Rs 20-crore contract, to deploy around 80 drones across four states, under the SVAMITVA scheme. The contract is for a period of one year and we began execution in November. The majority of deployments will happen in Uttar Pradesh.
We are still figuring out the right approach for implementation across different areas… I think the rural population has welcomed it.
The only challenge has been the global, supply-chain disruptions. We haven’t been able to get the components required for manufacturing our drones on time.
As one of the largest drone companies in India, are you looking to diversify?
We have been active in the market for the last eight years and have just started village mapping. We have also worked with some state governments on property tax and urban planning.
We have clients in mining, infrastructure, roads, railways, ports, smart city projects, urban planning, irrigation, infrastructure and renewable energy, and they include Tata Steel, Adani, Hindalco, NTPC and Coal India. We are quite bullish on agriculture.
Next year, we will be expanding outside India, for which we are actively seeking partners in other geographies. We are in discussions to raise around $10 million through equity infusion.
The government recently announced a PLI scheme for drone manufacturing, with an outlay of Rs 200 crore. Is that support enough for India to emerge as a global manufacturing hub for drones?
Through the PLI scheme, the government intends to promote not just the manufacturing of drones in the country, but even the development of software for drones.
The scheme will help Indian companies to manufacture drones for domestic as well as international markets. Apart from the PLI scheme, the government has awarded contracts to Indian companies to manufacture drones and drone parts indigenously.
The demand for drones in India has increased by almost 15 times over the last one and a half years. The value of the contracts too has also gone up 15 times over the same period.
There are already manufacturing companies that are working on creating components for the drone market. In another six to twelve months, we will have some reliable and competitive products coming from Indian companies.
What more can the government do to encourage the use of drones in India and boost manufacturing?
Aggressive research and development will be required if India wants to become a major drone-manufacturing hub. The government will need to promote such R&D.
They will need to create integrated testing sites where manufacturers can test their products. They will need to assign some open areas where companies can do seamless testing. The government can also create special economic zones for drone manufacturing and testing.
The government should also seriously focus on skill development. They need to change the curriculum of engineering colleges to introduce courses on drone manufacturing and development. This will create a talent pool and attract international companies to invest in manufacturing and R&D in India.
The government can also create awareness among potential private equity and venture capital investors to invest in the drone market in India. After all, expansion, growth and product creation need a lot of capital. The government can also create alternate capital sources such as low-cost technology development and manufacturing loans that may be offered under existing schemes.
How do you expect the Indian drone market to grow in the next five to ten years and which are the sectors where the use of drones will increase?
The Indian drone market will grow at a compounded annual growth rate of 50 percent for the next five years to become a $5-billion market. Drones will be used across the board in the renewable energy, power, mining, infrastructure, irrigation, roads and railways, and oil and gas industries. One of the biggest markets for drone applications will be in the agriculture industry in India. Drones have the potential to set off a new green revolution here.
Drones will also play a major role in the Geographic Information System (GIS) industry, for making land records, terrain mapping and planning development of infrastructure in the country.
Globally, the high cost of labour accelerated the adoption of drones. Are we likely to see drones replacing workers in India?
Drones do not replace labour. They will just be a tool to complement labour and improve their efficiency and productivity. Drones will also create more employment for skilled workers. People are needed to create, operate and maintain them.
How many schools exist to train people to become drone pilots in India?
There are around 40 schools authorised by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) across India that train people to become drone pilots. Many more schools are being set up. At this moment, the country is facing a shortfall of more than 1,000 pilots. At Aarav Unmanned System, we are looking to hire at least 75 pilots in the next two months.
How do Indian drone regulation standards compare with the global standards?
India's current drone regulation standards are second to none. Both India’s drone operational standards as well as the airworthiness certification standards are second to none. Very few countries have standards that work in a holistic manner. The Indian government has been able to figure out the right pieces of the puzzle to promote the use of drones in India.
Considering that your company has been a part of the Indian drone industry since 2013, how do you see the government’s latest rules helping the industry?
When we started in 2013, there was no discussion or even awareness about the uses of drones in the commercial space. Drones were being used for defence applications and internal security applications in a limited manner. They were not used for commercial and civilian applications like we see today.
It was only in 2016 that people started talking about using drones for different applications such as remote sensing, drought monitoring and event management.
The regulator became very sceptical about the use of drone technology in 2016-17 when someone created an advertisement where drones were used to deliver pizzas in Mumbai. The need for regulation arose from threat perception. The regulator felt that drones can be a threat to national security and decided to ban the use of drones in civilian airspace.
Things have completely changed now and the government now understands the service that drones can deliver to society, especially for the complex problems India deals with such as infrastructure, land records, irrigation, agriculture, and even seamless supplier of emergency health supplies and medicine.
If we look at the last one and a half years, the government has not only opened up around 90 percent of India’s airspace for the use of drones but has also reduced licensing approvals for the use of drones. This has improved the business potential in the country.Over the lastsix to seven months, the government has issued contracts worth more than Rs 500 crore to acquire drones for surveillance and counter enemy attacks.