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These aerospace experts are building drones to save accident victims' lives

A General Aeronautics drone on a test flight
While working at defence organisations such as  Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) and National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL), Abhishek Burman played a key role in the design and development of India’s combat aircraft programmes. Now as director and chief executive officer at General Aeronautics (GA), Burman and his team are building drones for saving lives. 

His startup, which was incubated at Society for Innovation and Development (SID) at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), designs and makes unmanned aerial vehicles or drones focused on security and civilian applications. One application is to send the drones to an accident site, provide medical aid and relay critical information to the doctors and paramedic staff to assess the situation.

When responding to emergency calls, ambulances always run the risk of being held up by traffic. It takes more time for them to reach to rural or remote areas. In either case, they run the risk of crossing the ‘golden period’ of saving the life of the accident victim which is the crucial period of administering timely first aid. The solution to this is drone technology. 

“The ‘golden period’ to save a life in the case of accidents is 8-10 minutes on average. Drones can reach the accident site within the said period carrying an ‘active blood control kit with it,” said Burman. “The bystanders or people in the immediate vicinity of the accident can then administer first aid to the victim with the help or directives of medical professionals connected digitally through the drone. The drone itself would be a high-speed variant due to the timely nature of this particular use case,” said Burman.

GA is integrating with the 108 ambulance service call centres. Once they get information about any accident, drones would get activated and cross a distance of about 16 kilometres to reach the accident location. The company plans to complete the demonstration of the technology by June this year and start the commercial operations.

GAs’ drone technology is important as road safety continues to be a major developmental issue causing death and injury. The number of annual road traffic deaths has reached 1.35 million globally, according to a report by the World Health Organization. Road accidents continue to be a leading cause of death, disabilities and hospitalisation in India. Every day over 400 people are killed in road accidents and more than 1,200 are injured in the country. The number of road accidents across India amounted to around 449 thousand in 2019, according to data platform Statista. About 70 per cent of accidents involved young Indians. The country has about one per cent of the global vehicle population but it accounted for six per cent of the world's road traffic accidents.

There are regulatory hurdles for flying drones in the country. However, it is expected that trial runs of drone deliveries for beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) will be soon be taken up after being given approval by the government. This would enable unmanned aerial flights like drones to cover longer distances.

Last year Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) had given a nod to food startups like Zomato, Swiggy and Dunzo to start testing beyond BVLOS drones for deliveries.

The GA  team is comprised of highly experienced members with decades of expertise in industry and R&D organisations internationally. Besides Burman, the leadership team at General Aeronautics includes Dr. Kota Harinarayana, Dr Ramaseshan Satagopan and Dr Anutosh Moitra. Harinarayana, founder-chairman at GA, is better known for his former role as programme director and chief designer of India’s indigenous light combat aircraft (LCA).

Satagopan, director and chief operating officer at the GA had previously led aerospace business at Tech Mahindra. He also has extensive experience for research and development related to aircraft design and development while working at the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO).

Moitra, founder director and chief technology officer at GA, is recognized internationally for his unique expertise across all aspects of aircraft design and analysis. In his career spanning over three decades at US space agency NASA and defence firm Boeing he was recognized for his innovations in design and analysis methodology.

GA makes fixed-wing and rotary-wing drones for a wide range of civilian, humanitarian and military roles. These include surveillance and reconnaissance and transportation of packages including medical supplies and organs for transplantation. Another important application is precision agriculture.

Future food security has become a major global concern. Hence there is a movement towards making agriculture more sustainable with lesser use of harmful chemicals by making the input delivery process more efficient and precise. Many countries have moved to aerial spraying practices which are highly efficient and also reduce the hazardous impact of manual spraying. GA is at the forefront of drone-based agriculture technologies and has indigenously developed and validated a top solution to improve input application efficiency multi-fold. GA believes that agriculture in many countries including India, is ready to use such cost-effective technologies to improve the yield - which will benefit the farmers and humanity at large.

GA’s drones were also in the frontline fight against Covid-19 pandemic in association with the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) and Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation (BMC). More than 125 drone takeoffs across over 40 sites in Bengaluru and Bhubaneswar city took place and sprayed more than 2,25,000 square metres area. These included residential areas, markets, roads, hospital and other key locations. GA additionally deployed its surveillance and public announcement system for the Bengaluru police to address the pandemic.

The UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) market was estimated at $19.3 billion in 2019 and is projected to reach $45.8 billion by 2025, at a CAGR of 15.5 per cent from 2019 to 2025, according to the research firm MarketsandMarkets. The increasing use of UAVs in various commercial applications, such as monitoring, surveying and mapping, precision agriculture, aerial remote sensing, and product delivery, is also contributing to the growth of the UAV market.

According to Inc42 DataLabs’, research report, “Drone Technology: India Opportunity Report 2019”, the total funding raised by drone startups in India from 2014 to 2018 was just $16.56 million which accounts for a mere 2.26 per cent of the total deep tech funding ($732 million) in the same period. Meanwhile, India’s neighbour nation China ramped up its investments up to 14x more ($239 million) than India during 2014-18. 

But investors are now taking note of the Indian drone companies. GA recently raised Rs 6.5 crore pre-series A financing led by Mela Ventures. With the investment, GA will expand its go-to-market programmes. It will continue to invest in areas of high reliability and efficient spraying, operational support, including training drone pilots.

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