BS READS: Drone operators unite, lend a helping hand in coronavirus fight

Topics BS Reads | Drone | Coronavirus

A handful of start-ups are testing thermal-imaging cameras on drones capable of detecting public movement in the night
In a crowded country like India, drones might be the answer to enforcing social distancing, the authorities have realised. As police forces spread themselves thin managing the heat zones, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are now being deployed in cities, slums, even forests, to detect violations.

Forces in all major metro cities have partnered with start-ups to deploy drones for surveillance — detect violations and report back to the local police control room for targeted action. In places like Bengaluru and Srinagar, drones have been seen making public announcements, while in Bhubaneswar they have been used to spray disinfectants at high-footfall areas.

Instrumental in the collaboration between start-ups and forces has been the Drone Federation of India (DFI), a collective of over 1,200 operators, independent pilots, manufacturers and service providers in the drone circuit.

The 50-odd companies that are part of the DFI have developed a software-cum-monitoring platform, through which any operator in India can offers to survey a selected region and relay the feed to a DFI dashboard. Over 100 drones are currently being used across the country through the collective.

A drone system – including the software suite and a controller – can cost up to Rs 1 lakh or more, depending on specifications. However, given that government procurement is often slow and tedious, bringing in new drone systems to assist in Covid-19 operations immediately is not feasible.

To counter this, DFI has offered the drone platform pro-bono. It does not take a fee from the authorities, and is in fact supporting the operations through a grant from ACT. Action Covid-19 Team (ACT) is a Rs 100-crore fund set up by start-up founders and investors to support initiatives and solutions targeted at managing the Covid-19 pandemic. DFI is one of the beneficiaries.

Beyond surveillance, more innovations are in the offing. A handful of start-ups are testing thermal-imaging cameras on drones capable of detecting public movement in the night. There is also preliminary discussion for an infrastructure for drones to be able to deliver medicines and parcels.

That drones are coming in handy at this time is partly because the government had formally regulated the sector. India in 2018 put down a governing framework for drones which required operators to register their UAVs and secure licences. According to the Ministry of Civil Aviation, 19,553 drones had been registered as of March 10.

As the world enters an era of limited human contact, aerial vehicles will complement ground forces in a several missions. Who are these operators and what are the solutions? Business Standard looks at five companies fighting the battle from the skies:

When the government opened up the Digital Sky platform, Asteria Aerospace was the first to secure a licence. Its A200 microdrone was given licence plate number U0000001 by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA).

This Bengaluru-based start-up is a leading player in surveillance drone systems for security forces. Its systems are used by Indian Army, paramilitary forces, police forces, as well as by private industrial players. It has supplied over 70 systems to clients. In December 2019, Reliance Industries acquired a 51 per cent stake in the company for an undisclosed amount.

Nihar Vartak, co-founder and chief executive officer, was hush-hush about the partnership with Reliance but shared what his start-up was doing in the fight against Covid-19. Unlike most operators who are surveying public areas, Asteria Aerospace has offered its drones to keep a watch on forests.

“As law-enforcement agencies are busy enforcing social distancing in cities, what they observed was an increased amount of poaching in forests. So, we are helping them clamp down on that,” said Vartak. “We do 4-5 flights daily, covering 400-500 acres of forest land in Karnataka, to ensure there are no poaching activities, and also keep an eye out on villagers chopping off trees illegally.”

Asteria Aerospace is a founding member of DFI, through which it has helped design and implement a platform that brings together hundreds of drone operators and pilots across the country. Vartak said the coronavirus pandemic would greatly increase use-cases and acceptance of drones.

He roots for drones being used for delivery of medical supplies. In the case of coronavirus testing, the collection centres are spread across villages and rural areas but the labs where samples are tested could be hundreds of miles away. Here, drones could be effective in transporting the samples quickly while preventing any risk of human contamination in the process, he said.

“As for the government, they are very willing and listening to whatever possible applications drones can be used for. Basically, they are absolutely open to any idea that helps minimise human contact,” said Vartak.

Vartak had founded Asteria Aerospace along with college mate Neel Mehta in 2012, and they released their first product in 2016. Vartak and Mehta had studied aerospace engineering at the Purdue University, US.

Aarav Unmanned Systems is one of the four founding members of the DFI, and instrumental in developing the open-monitoring platform meant for independent operators across the nation who would do sorties in affected regions (survey for any violations) and relay the information back to local police control rooms.

“In the districts which are badly hit, we are deploying pilots free of cost so that government agencies, police and district administration can monitor and manage the crowd better and enforce lockdown in a more efficient manner,” said Vipul Singh, co-founder and chief executive officer, Aarav Unmanned Systems.

“We feel that these applications and platforms are easy to develop; there’s no point selling them. We also feel that the number of drone operators and pilots in the country is sufficient to do this activity on a pro-bono basis. It is not possible to create hundreds of drones all of a sudden and deploy them overnight. But if we use existing resources, we can be impactful within a two-day period, and that is what we are doing right now,” he said.

Barring its contribution as a DFI member, Aarav Unmanned Systems is among the leading providers of survey-grade drones for industries like mining, urban infrastructure, constructions and utilities.

The company not only manufactures drones but also offers clients end-to-end managed solutions (including software dashboards with data presentations and mapping tools) for the said use-cases. It is a provider to some of the big industrial corporate houses like L&T, Vedanta, Adani Group, Hindalco and JSW Group.

Aarav had its beginnings at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, where the two co-founders studied. The operations were later moved to Bengaluru. In the years since incorporation, its drones had mapped over 300,000 acres of area, Singh said.

As the virus spread in India, General Aeronautics began offering support to the authorities in what it did best: remote disinfection. This Bengaluru-based start-up had made a name for itself in agriculture disinfection, with drones that could spray 3-acre farms in less than 10 minutes.

It quickly remodelled some of the drones to spray not pesticides in farms but sodium hyper-chloride on streets, market areas and office buildings. “A majority of the areas we are spraying are places where high footfall is expected during the day. So, we spray either very early in the day or late at night,” said Abhishek Burman, co-founder and CEO, General Aeronautics.

The start-up, which is based out of the Indian Institute of Science (IISC) in Bengaluru, has currently deployed drones in Bhubaneswar and Cuttack in Odisha and Bengaluru in Karnataka. These drones spray disinfectant on markets and government bungalows, in the wee hours twice every day. The operations were started in Bengaluru on March 24 and in Bhubaneswar on April 13. To date, over 200 sorties have been completed.

Overall, General Aeronautics has eight drone systems helping in Covid-19 operations out of a total of the 20 systems it has deployed to date.

“We have paid enough attention to ensuring the coverage area of drones is good, and it gets the job done effectively. We are not saying drones are the only solution, but it is the best solution where human intervention is not possible or does not make sense,” said Burman, adding that the company had published a white paper on the effectiveness of various disinfectants and the parameters a spray-drone must comply with to be useful.

Beyond this, its drones are being used to make public announcements in Bengaluru. The public announcement drones serve a dual purpose, said Burman. They have both a microphone and a camera, so the operator can make live announcements based on what they see.

General Aeronautics is also building a platform for authorities which would receive live feeds from drones deployed to survey hotspots. It boasts artificial intelligence-based tools which automatically detect anomalies (like crowding) and alert police control rooms accordingly. Talks are on with Bhubaneswar and Bengaluru police for deployment, Burman said.

General Aeronautics was incubated at Society of Innovation and Development (SID), IISC, where it is currently situated. Burman said its drone were used extensively in Kerala, where it has developed an AI-based solution for coconut farming. This is now being extended to other crops.

As the Covid-19 virus spread, a new challenge emerged: How to ensure social distancing in slums? Small make-shift houses and crammed streets would inevitably force people out on to the streets, and the police patrols would not be able to reach such areas. The solution: Drones. Enter Idea Forge, the market leader in surveillance drones. The company has its systems deployed with BFS, Air Force, NSG and police forces of several states. Building on existing partnerships, the start-up moved to offer UAVs for surveillance, and quickly scaled operations to 10 cities.

Forces in Mumbai are using Idea Forge’s Netra Pro UAV, which packs two payloads — a camera and a megaphone, in Dharavi. The drone relays real-time feed and allows operators to announce messages to the public. About 20-30 flights are taking place every day in Dharavi, Thane, Bhiwandi and Worli — some of the densely populated neighbourhoods.

Another set of drones, called Q Series, are used in Delhi, Kolkata and Maharashtra’s Sangli district.

Founder Ankit Mehta said that the company was piloting special drones with thermal sensors in Delhi. These are specifically used to survey at night. The thermal sensor, which detects heat, is able to capture movement of humans, and even vehicles, in pitch dark, and report violations to the control room.

“Drones are useful to authorities in providing on-ground situational awareness in real time, tracking lockdown violators and conducting surveillance without risking their lives. Also, a drone carrying an HD camera and a megaphone acts as a strong deterrent against lockdown violations, as people are aware that they are under surveillance,” said Mehta. Given its growing use in the time of pandemic and more people learning about, “we are witnessing an exponential rise in drone-powered surveillance inquiries”.

Idea Forge is a full-stack company that manufactures drones and drone-management software from ground up, as well as peripherals like controllers.

Being military-grade drones, these have high payload-carrying capacity and a long range for battery and flight. Its Netra drone was among the first indigenously developed drone systems to be inducted in the army. The company was set up by engineers from the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai, in 2007. So, that makes it one of the oldest such company in the country.

The only bootstrapped firm in this group, Quidich Innovation Labs, is also the most unique. It’s a leading player in drones and remote camera management systems for the broadcast sector. Quidich has provided drone systems for several cricketing events, including the last four seasons of the Indian Premier League (IPL), and film productions such as Gully Boy and Sanju.

In the current scenario, Quidich has also diverted resources towards helping authorities manage the coronavirus situation. Through the DFI platform, its drones are doing regular surveying and monitoring of areas in Mumbai.

“The (DFI) dashboard rests at the Mumbai police control room, where they are able to see live feeds. This helps them send forces only at places where violations have occurred,” said Quidich co-founder Gaurav Mehta. Sending plain-vanilla footage was not enough, drone systems needed to be intelligent, he said. Those in use today are capable of automatically zooming in and out on targets (where there is a commotion) or even fly close to it.

Why Quidich operates in the broadcast sector is because co-founder and CEO Rahat Kulshreshtha is also a film-maker on the side. He studied film-making at University of Westminster, London, and later worked on independent products for two years in London. On returning to India, he went for Young India Fellowship at the Ashoka University, where he met Mehta.

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