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The age of drones: Flying high from war-torn Iraq to riot-hit Trilokpuri

Engineers are finding civilian uses for UAVs and they are being employed in surveillance and data gathering by security agencies. Drones were last week seen flying over riot-hit Trilokpuri in east Delhi.

delhi Updated: Nov 03, 2014 19:51 IST
Manoj Sharma
Manoj Sharma
Hindustan Times

“They’re the third most annoying thing in the sky after mosquitoes and plastic bags caught in the breeze.” This is how John Oliver of the Last Week Tonight fame described drones or the unmanned aerial vehicles.

But there is much more to these pilotless flying objects. These menacing ‘creatures’ have been extensively used by the US Air Force to target al-Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan. They have rained fire through hellfire missiles on terrorists on the Pak-Afghan border.

Of late, however, engineers are finding civilian uses for these UAVs and they are also being employed in surveillance and data gathering by various security agencies.

From flying over Tora Bora (Afghanistan) fitted with laser-targeted missiles, drones were last week seen flying over the riot-hit Trilokpuri in east Delhi.

Aakash Sinha, a Delhi-based robotics engineer, is a witness to the growing popularity of the UAVs in India. Sinha, who develops robots for land, sky and water, has been engaged in developing customised drones for individuals, universities, defence forces and industry for the past one-and-a-half years.

“People are fascinated by the vast possibilities of tasks that drones can perform,” says Sinha, sitting in a haphazard mess of electronic devices and mechanical tools at his office in Okhla.

Aakash Sinha (third from left) with his team of engineers at his company in Okhla. Sinha makes customised drones for individuals, corporates and defence industry. He is also developing a navigational module for ISRO’s Chandrayaan-2 mission. (Raj K Raj/HT Photo)

In the civilian space, drones first captured the imagination of the people when last year Amazon conducted a test flight in the US to deliver a package to the door of a customer. Back home, in May this year, a pizza chain in Mumbai made a test-delivery less than 2km away from its outlet using a GPS-enabled drone. Similarly, Jabong, a popular Indian e-tailer, recently tested a custom-made drone made by Sinha for delivering products within their warehouse in Manesar.

“We successfully conducted this test about four months ago. We delivered a packet containing an apparel and a pair of shoes using a drone. We believe drones can be very effective in fast, targeted and modular deliveries. The idea behind the test was to remain technology ready for whenever the government allows the use of drones for commercial purposes,” says Praveen Sinha, founder and managing director, Jabong.

In the last one-and-a-half years, Aakash Sinha’s firm — Omnipresent Robot Tech — has developed and delivered about 20 drones to various individuals and organisations, including one to the DRDO. Sinha is in talks with Mumbai International Airport, which wishes to use a drone for welcoming guests. He is also in touch with the organising committee of the forthcoming National Games, where the organisers are exploring the possibility of using a drone to fly the national flag during the opening ceremony. The Meghalaya police wants Sinha to create a drone that could help the force map the entire region.

In fact, recreational drone — a small Quadricopter — is available on e-tail websites such as Flipkart and Amazon for about Rs. 39,000.

Individual use of UAVs has seen a spike in the recent times. While a Sonepat-based farmer Veer Bhan Bajaj used a UAV to survey his crops, wildlife photographers fly them for helping them spot animals.

“The pictures taken by the drone enabled us to identify areas that required water and fertilizers,” said Bajaj.

Aviation regulator, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) is busy processing guidelines for the use of UAVs for civilian and institutional (non-governmental) purposes.

“UAVs has potential for large number of civil applications. However, its use besides being a safety issue, also poses security threat....DGCA is in the process of formulating the regulations...Till such regulations are issued, no non-government agency, organization, or an individual will launch a UAV in Indian Civil Airspace for any purpose whatsoever,” the DGCA had said in a directive issued on October 7.

Sinha feels once the regulatory framework is put in place, it will provide the much-needed boost to drone-makers and will help realise the full potential of UAVs to make a positive contribution to the lives of the people.

“Imagine a future where a drone knocks on your window and deliver your lunch. Drones will be doing a lot of things for humans. They will bring medicines, deliver your post, deliver lunch-box to your office from your home like dabbawallahs of Mumbai. Besides, they can do surveillance at home. In the not-so-distant future, there will be a lot of drones out there flying on their designated paths over our cities,” says Sinha.

His firm makes two kinds of drones: a fixed-wings drone called Hansa and a multi-rotor one named Garun.

Hansa is shaped like an airplane and has a range of 100km. It can fly at a height of 2000 metres at a speed of 100 km per hour for one-and-a-half hours in one battery charge. But Sinha says Garun is much more popular. It can fly at a speed of 40 km per hour for 20 km at one battery charge.

“A multi-rotor drone can perform varied tasks. It is like a helicopter. It can do aerial crowd monitoring, it can distribute candies, it can fly flags, it can detect security threats, etc,” says Sinha.

But does a drone lose its way in the sky? “It has fail-safe operations, so if there is a communication failure it returns to take-off position automatically,” he says.

Sinha spends about 15 hours a day in his laboratory with a team of 20 people comprising electronics, aerospace, and software engineers. It takes about six months to one year to make a commercial or a defence drone. These UAVs cost somewhere between Rs. 5 lakh and Rs. 10 lakh.

“It’s a complex business involving mechanical, aerospace, electronic and algorithm software engineering,” says Sinha, whose tryst with robotics started in Delhi College of Engineering where he, along with his classmates, developed a robot that could wash clothes.

“It was a robot that forcefully spun the water and so cleaned our clothes. Though we made it for cleaning the clothes, which was quite a task for us, it ended up winning a level engineering students competition “ says Sinha.

Sinha, who studied robotics at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), says flying a UAV also needs training and practice. Before professionally handling drones, one should ideally have at least 100 hours of flying experience. “Initially a drone has to be tested by pilot before it can fly on auto-pilot,” said Sinha, who is developing a navigation module for ISRO’s Chandrayaan-2 mission.

Among various laurels, Sinha was named one of the top young innovators in 2013 by Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

His Hansa drone won the gold medal of the ministry of science and technology. He also got the DARPA Robotics Grand Challenge medal by the US department of defence for developing a driverless car in 2005.

Sinha feels that robots that can be used under water can help a lot in cleaning rivers.

First Published: Nov 01, 2014 23:39 IST