Drones, the next business frontier

Indian entrepreneurs have excelled at frugal innovation: Their products and services deliver world-class functionality at rock-bottom prices. India’s businesses solve hard consumer problems using technology superbly and now define the global productivity frontier for mass services. Mobile data networks, the BHIM app, e-commerce portals, and ride-sharing companies are excellent examples of how India is developing mass services to meet the needs of hundreds of millions of consumers. As a result, India has become the ideal laboratory for figuring out how to serve consumers in the fast-growing developing world.

A vast and intriguing new market opportunity for India’s entrepreneurs has emerged. Drone technology is progressing rapidly, and drone-driven applications ranging from photography to agriculture, from infrastructure asset maintenance to insurance, are being developed. Drones range in size from very small (which you can hold in your hand, or indeed a finger!) to those that can carry many kilograms of payload. Drones can enhance operational efficiency and create completely new applications which simply did not exist earlier.

Market opportunities

Research reports estimate that the drone-driven market globally will soon be more than $10 billion. In India, various experts estimate that market opportunities could soon exceed hundreds of billions of rupees.

Drones can revolutionise agriculture and assist significantly in achieving the prime minister’s goal of doubling farmer incomes. Drones can be used to study farms through specialised imaging, to identify if crops are healthy or stressed, and recommend appropriate interventions. They can help farmers cut their input costs through precision agriculture — applying expensive fertilisers and pesticides only where needed. They can also be used by insurance firms to quickly survey and assess the extent of crop damage digitally. 

E-commerce has already been very successful in India: Delivery and pick-up of goods by drones can add another dimension by increasing the viability of many-to-many commerce. Facilitating drone delivery will require the setting up of an entirely new logistics infrastructure. New, practical and socially-useful use-cases like delivery of medicines, or indeed blood, to those in need can be made possible by drones. Many of these use-cases will emerge as regulations evolve. 

From Make in India drone manufacturing to serving Indian consumers and industry, drones will create new, specialised jobs as well. From drone pilots to digital air traffic managers, from drone-port operators to drone- fleet managers, from drone manufacturers to drone maintenance, repair and overhaul engineers, India will witness the creation of many new, skilled and well-paying employment opportunities.

Policy and regulatory road map

Regulations play a critical role in creating and shaping new markets. An important aspect of the regulatory rule-making process, especially in cases of fast-evolving new technologies, is to allow safe-zones for experimentation. The ministry of civil aviation has recently unveiled its new policy on Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and announced Digital Sky, an unmanned traffic management (UTM) platform.

These regulations have been developed methodically and carefully, so that we can establish a world-leading drone ecosystem in India. To that end, we sought to formulate drone regulations that would permit, with appropriate safeguards, the commercial application of various drone technologies. The preparation of these drone regulations through a Civil Aviation Requirement (CAR) has taken multiple years because: (1) Drone technologies have been evolving very rapidly; (2) many countries are still experimenting with their drone regulations and no ICAO standards have yet been developed; and (3) India’s security environment necessitates extra precautions. 

Instead of simply digitising a paper-based process for registering and operating drones, we are preparing an all-digital process to enable drone flights. The Digital Sky Platform is a first-of-its-kind national UTM platform that implements “no permission, no takeoff”. Users will be required to do a one-time registration of their drones, pilots, and owners. For every flight (exempted for the nano category), users will be required to ask for permission to fly on a mobile app. An automated process will then either permit or deny the request in a time-bound manner. To prevent unauthorised flights and to ensure public safety, a drone without a digital permit to fly will simply not be able to take off. The UTM operates as a traffic regulator in the drone airspace and coordinates closely with the defence and civilian air traffic controllers to ensure that drones remain on approved flight paths. 

New technologies bring with them new challenges. Specifically, in the case of drones, privacy, safety and security are three key challenges that need to be addressed now as well as in the future. The creation of India’s drone policy has benefitted from multiple stakeholder engagements. We undertook many industry town-halls, multiple deliberations with security agencies, and many drone security management demonstrations as well. These requirements and their resolutions will continue to evolve — the policy framework will hence be dynamic and iterative. The current regulations should therefore be viewed as Drone Regulations 1.0. 

The world for such emerging technology is flat; technology-based ecosystems are global not local. New technology offers a chance to develop a new set of standards: Such standards, especially if set at a global scale, offer massive scope for standardisation and help focus research and development efforts. With our new Drone 1.0 regulations, India can now take the lead in working with regulators and industry players across the world to set future standards. We are also evaluating whether we can (similar to the International Solar Alliance) establish a Global Drone Alliance.

Drone technologies can drive the development of many new industries. We are shaping the evolution of these industries through our policy road map and progressive regulations. As India-specific use cases develop, as affordable solutions proliferate, and as we start to manufacture low-cost drones, our drone ecosystem will take off and surely lead the world.
/> The writer is Minister of State for Civil Aviation and a Member of Parliament from Hazaribagh, Jharkhand. These are his personal views