From monitoring crops to crime, India bets big on drones
In various sectors, drones are being used in sophisticated applications, with the government understanding its strategic and economic benefits.
New Delhi: India’s drone economy is expanding rapidly, from health care to agriculture, with both State-run agencies and private firms rolling out a wide range of applications and services, some to boost last-mile delivery in hard-to-reach areas. Investments are expected to reach ₹5,000 crore in the next three years, according to an official projection.
At one end of the spectrum, drones have entered people’s lives, transforming private occasions. It’s becoming common to organise aerial photoshoots at weddings, for instance.
The other end is witnessing sophisticated applications such as the delivery of vaccines in rural areas. Police departments routinely scan their jurisdictions from the sky for law-and-order surveillance.
The efficiency of the country’s agriculture, which employs half of all Indians, could be transformed with drone-based spraying of farm chemicals and crop monitoring, reckons the farm ministry.
To be sure, there are issues to sort out — the quality of drones, their battery efficiencies, and pricing for end-users of commercial services. These are critical to achieving the scale needed to make India a global drone hub by 2030, as envisioned by the Union government.
Several policy changes are underway, with the government cutting onerous compliance requirements. It has, for instance, cut the number of forms required to be filled for approval by drone operators from about 26 in 2014 to five now, under new rules effective 2021.
Unmanned aerial vehicles are coming in handy, especially for the delivery of essential public services in remote areas, improving efficiency at low costs. A milestone came when indigenously manufactured drones dropped Covid-19 vaccines to a far-off medical centre last year.
The inaugural flight run by the Indian Council of Medical Research delivered 900 doses of the vaccine from Manipur’s Bishnupur district headquarters to a primary health care facility on an island in the state’s sprawling Loktak Lake. The flight time was 15 minutes for a 31-km stretch.
In the public health care programme, i-Drone, proposed payloads include antenatal care medicines, syringes, gloves and multivitamins in Manipur, Nagaland and Andaman and the Nicobar Islands, one of India’s remotest offshore territories.
The Union government has virtually banned the import of drones to bolster local manufacturing under the atmanirbhar (self-reliance) campaign. Import of commercial drones now requires special permissions, except those for defence purposes. Manufacturers can, however, import components and spares.
Last year, the Union government announced a production-linked incentive (PLI) scheme worth ₹120 crore for drone-makers. Under this scheme, manufacturers get monetary incentives when a certain output target is met.
“Drones and drone components manufacturing industry may see an investment of over ₹5,000 crore over the next three years. Annual sales turnover of the drone manufacturing industry may grow from ₹60 crore in 2020-21 to over ₹900 crore in FY 2023-24,” a paper of the civil aviation ministry states. All this is expected to generate over 10,000 direct jobs over the next three years, the paper projected.
Changes in regulatory and manufacturing policies pivot on making India a drone hub. These broadly include, so far, the Drone Rules August 2021, the PLI scheme, the National Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management Policy Framework and the certification scheme for unmanned aircraft systems that took effect in January 2022.
Besides, the government has also framed a drone import policy and Drone (Amendment) Rules effective February 2022. Additionally, the Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority of India released a set of guidelines for drone insurance, while the farm ministry has released standard operating protocols for drone use in farming. The Indian Council of Medical Research framed its guidance document for using drones in health care in June 2022.
“The government has realised drones’ strategic and economic benefits, and has provided the necessary impetus to harness the technology’s potential,” researcher Antara Vats of the Observer Research Foundation wrote in a recent paper.
States such as Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, and Assam, extensively use drones to detect illegal activities in reserve forests and national wildlife sanctuaries, according to their official press releases.
The state-owned Coal India, the Central Mine Planning and Design Institute, the National Highways Authority of India, and the Central Railways also routinely use drones to manage their operations.
Farming, which accounted for 20% of the country’s GDP in 2021-22, represents a lagging sector where the use of unpiloted small aircraft could raise productivity, experts say.
From sensor-based scanning of crop health to spraying of pesticides and soil nutrients, firms, especially startups, are already rolling out multiple services to increase efficiency.
“The NIPHM has developed a 10-day integrated training module for both flight and spraying for drone pilots and operators, which is awaiting directorate of civil aviation clearance. This will help a drone pilot get a license for drone flying valid for 10 years,” said Vidhu Kampurath P, joint director of the National Institute of Plant Health Management (NIPHM).
IFFCO, India’s largest fertiliser cooperative, is currently training rural youth in operating drones to spray its nano urea, a locally developed efficient variety of the crop nutrient, fertilisers and chemicals minister Mansukh Mandaviya said in a recent briefing.
Artificial Intelligence-based sensors are introducing unprecedented technologies, as startups test markets and find ways to reach economies of scale.
Self-flying agri drones have various software programming and technologies like navigation systems, GPS, sensors and cameras, which are programmable for automated flights.
Technology is a crying need in the country's large low-efficiency farming sector, where farm incomes are low, about one-third of those of non-agricultural households.
Experts point to a peculiar problem. Data shows that high-tech has spread fast in manufacturing compared to agriculture, a process called technology diffusion. For instance, according to the World Bank’s estimates cited by its president Jim Yong Kim in a 2016 speech, automation threatens 69% of today’s manufacturing jobs in India.
New federal guidelines for a scheme called Kisan Drone have provisioned substantial subsidies for farmers and organisations alike to spur the use of remotely pilot aerial vehicles.
Farmers’ producer organisations would be eligible to receive grants of up to 75% of the cost of the drone for forward demonstrations. The government will also offer ₹6,000 per hectare to implementing agencies that do not want to purchase drones but will hire drones for demonstrations.
These grants for promotion of drone technologies will be available till March 31, 2023, an official said.
“A standard agriculture drone costs between ₹8-10 lakhs… these steps have made the purchase of agricultural drones nearly free for leading agri-research and agri-training institutions,” said Rahul Kanojia, whose startup Beej Baazar offers drone-based spraying on a per hour basis in Punjab, Karnataka, and Maharashtra’s mango orchards.
Drone hiring centres will also receive special funding to provide agricultural services through drones. This includes 40% of the basic cost of the drone and its attachments or ₹4 lakh, whichever is lower. To be eligible for the cash, hiring centres and hi-tech hubs would have to be established by cooperative societies of farmers and rural entrepreneurs.
Graduates in agricultural sciences can establish hiring centres and will be eligible to receive 50% of the basic cost of a drone.
“2021 saw technology go closer to the ground with upstream agritech deals surpassing downstream deals in India for the first time. Agritech startups played a pivotal role in supporting the livelihoods of smallholder farmers during the pandemic,” said Mark Kahn, a spokesperson for Omnivore, an agritech focussed venture capital firm based in India.