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Age of contactless customers: Drones to replace traditional delivery executives

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), popularly known as drones, could well replace traditional delivery executives in the country in times to come as the ministry of civic aviation (MoCA) on Tuesday granted conditional exemption from Unmanned Aircraft System Rules, 2021 to 20 entities, including Dunzo and Swiggy, to conduct Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) experimental flights of drones
By Neha LM Tripathi, Mumbai
PUBLISHED ON MAY 06, 2021 12:27 AM IST

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), popularly known as drones, could well replace traditional delivery executives in the country in times to come as the ministry of civic aviation (MoCA) on Tuesday granted conditional exemption from Unmanned Aircraft System Rules, 2021 to 20 entities, including Dunzo and Swiggy, to conduct Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) experimental flights of drones.

Taking a step towards making home delivery by drones a reality, MoCA said BVLOS trials will help create a framework for future drone deliveries and other major applications using drones. Senior MoCA officials told HT that draft guidelines for BVLOS drone operations will be open for public scrutiny by the end of the year.

In April, MoCA also granted conditional approval to Telangana government for delivering Covid-19 vaccines using drones on an experimental basis. Similar permission was granted to the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) for conducting feasibility study of Covid-19 vaccine delivery using drones, in collaboration with Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur.

MoCA had constituted BVLOS Experiment Assessment and Monitoring Committee (BEAM) with an aim to undertake BVLOS experimental drone flights, following which the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) had in May 2019 issued an expression of interest (EOI).

Among 34 EOIs evaluated by the committee, 20 were selected for experimental flights. As a result of which, MoCA on Tuesday issued an order granting permission (or conditional exemption) to these selected consortia to conduct experiment flights for one year or until further orders, whichever is earlier.

The concept of drone delivery has, however, already taken roots in some countries with self-flying drones, from delivering Covid-19 vaccines in Ghana, a country in West Africa, to global e-commerce platforms (such as Amazon) planning to complete their deliveries by unmanned machines in the sky.

Back home, in 2014, a local eatery in Mumbai, as a test flight, used a drone for delivering a pizza, making it the first city in the country to adopt high-technology in food delivery.

Soon after the unlocking of the economy in June last year, DGCA granted approvals to food start-ups such as Zomato, Swiggy and Dunzo to start testing BVLOS operation drones for deliveries. In such operations, drones fly without a pilot maintaining visual line of sight on the aircraft at all times. Instead, the pilot operates the UAV using Remote Pilot Station (RPS) / Ground Control Station (GCS) instruments.

A Dunzo spokesperson said they were working with local authorities in Telangana to commence drone trials for medicine delivery. A comment from Swiggy is awaited.

Ministry officials said use of drones in last-mile deliveries will grow larger in the pandemic-hit world.

Though, in the recently announced norms for drone operations in the country, BVLOS operations for delivery of goods has not been permitted, a senior MoCA official early in March had said that as drones become the new normal, traditional air cargo movement has to dovetail itself with last-mile or first-mile connectivity.

“There are some areas of aviation, particularly in cargo, that need to grow as drones become the new normal. The civil aviation ministry may very shortly put in place a platform and rules, which will make air cargo grow as well,” Vandana Aggarwal, senior economic advisor in MoCA, had said.

The Unmanned Aircraft System Rules, 2021, notified on March 12, spells out the terms of usage of drones by individuals and businesses. It also lays down rules for terms of research, testing, production, and import of such vehicles. The rule allows drones to be used to conduct surveys, for photography, security, information gathering purposes, disaster management, and surveillance operations.

However, MoCA joint secretary and head of the drones division Amber Dubey said draft guidelines for BVLOS operations are expected to come by the end of this year.

“After test flights are conducted, test results and proof of concept submitted by consortia will be scrutinised by DGCA. Post which, draft guidelines will be issued and will be open for public feedback before issuing the notification,” said Dubey adding, “Thereafter guidelines are expected to be issued by year-end.”

A DGCA official said, “Trial flights will be affected by upcoming monsoon season and winter fog in certain parts of India. One cannot rush the trials since it has safety, national security, data security and privacy concerns.”

Chirag Sharma, co-founder and chief executive officer of Delhi-based Drone Destination Pvt Ltd, said drones, owing to its autonomous capabilities, will play a key role in last-mile logistics, especially in hard-to-access areas. “Heavy lift drones with payload carrying capacity of over 5kg can be used to transport essential food and supplies, medicines and blood samples,” said Sharma, adding that a restaurant-to-home food delivery is still some time away from an Indian UAS operations perspective.

“We will need drone ports in the future to enable large-scale drone powered logistics. Certain delivery companies like Zomato, Swiggy, Dunzo will be conducting government-approved trials in the next two to three months. Once learnings from the trials have been adopted and standard operating procedures (SOPs) are in place, we could see real-time implementation in the coming two to three years,” Sharma added.

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