Flipkart plans drones for rural delivery, wants to persuade govt

  • Narayanan Madhavan, Hindustan Times, Bangalore
  • Updated: May 15, 2015 21:57 IST

India’s leading e-tailer Flipkart is thinking beyond the horizon. It wants to use drones to deliver goods to rural areas. The catch is that civilian drones are not allowed in India but the Bangalore-based company, which has grown to be a giant in just seven years since its founding, is expecting to convince the government because it helps remote parts of the country.

Also this is an integral part of the company’s vision as Flipkart sees itself more as a technology and engineering company with expertise in the supply chain, Binny Bansal, the company’s chief operating officer, told HT in an interview.

“We are looking at drones for rural deliveries,” said the 32-year-old, who started up Flipkart in 2007 with CEO Sachin Bansal. “We’ll have to start talking to the regulators. That is the way technology can solve the commerce problem in the country.”

Last October, the government banned drones after private users like a pizza joint in Mumbai experimented with the unmanned airborn mini-vehicles. The Director General of Civil Aviation cited security threats to ban drones in Indian airspace.

The Bansals are not related but both Binny and Sachin, who is a year older, studied at IIT, Delhi and worked for global e-tail giant Amazon. They also spent their childhoods in Chandigarh.

Amazon, which has now started operations in India as a rival to Flipkart, is also trying to pioneer drone delivery in the US, and has told US regulators that it plans to deliver packages wherever needed in 30 minutes. Washington authorities permitted experimental test flights last March. Amazon has filed a patent application for drone delivery of goods.

Even in the US, drone delivery is at a test stage, and regulatory clearance for use of the skies is not on the horizon yet.

Bansal said Flipkart was adapting technologies to Indian conditions and costs and was keeping the options open to deploy robots, having already gone paperless in large parts of its logistics, where both time management and cost control are critical.

For instance, as many as 100,000 packages have to be sorted for delivery in as many as 200 towns, and optimising resources is a key problem to be solved. Flipkart, which has a staff of 33,000, uses geo-coding of packets and handheld computers to help its field staff operate faster and cheaper. It has a core technology team of 1,200 engineers.

“We are a technology and engineering company doing the supply chain. That’s how we look at ourselves,” Bansal said. “We do all our technology in house. We don’t rely on third party companies like Infosys. We don’t look at technology as a support.”

Flipkart has had a few rounds of private equity investment ahead of an anticipated public issue of shares, and market talk pegs its current valuation in the region of $15 billion (more than Rs 90,000 crore).

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