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How Drones Are Helping India Fight The Coronavirus Pandemic

Drones made by Sagar Defence Engineering were used by the Mumbai Police to monitor lockdowns in Dharavi. SAGAR DEFENCE ENGINEERING

When India went under a nationwide lockdown in March to curb the spread of the coronavirus, civic authorities in the financial capital of Mumbai, knew they had a daunting challenge on their hands. With a population of 20 million people, the city is densely packed and nowhere more so than in crowded Dharavi, one of the world’s largest slums. With an estimated 1 million people residing there in cramped quarters, Dharavi had all the makings of a potential Covid-19 hotspot.

Mumbai’s police force, which was entrusted with ensuring that the slum’s residents observed lockdown rules, enlisted the help of Sagar Defence Engineering, a Mumbai maker of drones or unmanned aerial vehicles. The company, which counts the state-owned Oil and Natural Gas Corporation as an investor, was commissioned to make two customized drones fitted with megaphones for the Mumbai police force.

Rather than patrolling the narrow streets of Dharavi and risk getting infected, the cops deployed the drones to urge people to stay indoors. The drones were operated by a Sagar Defence employee stationed near a police outpost. The megaphones on the drones were connected to the cell phones of the police officers, who could simply dial in and make their announcements.

 

An operator controls a drone made by Sagar Defence Engineering. COURTESY OF SAGAR DEFENCE ENGINEERING

Customizing the drone was a challenge, acknowledges Sagar’s cofounder Nikunj Parashar, an engineer and licensed mariner who left the Indian Navy and set up his own venture in 2015. “But we were able to do so by using locally available resources.” His firm has since supplied similar drones to other cities such as Delhi, Goa and Vishakapatnam.

For Parashar and other Indian drone makers, whose business had been slow to take off amid regulatory hurdles, the pandemic has provided a much-needed boost. Demand for drones has soared as civic authorities, state governments and the police sought out these flying machines to help them manage the pandemic in a myriad of ways.

Drones are being used for such tasks as dropping off medical supplies and personal protective gear to healthcare workers to spraying disinfectant over public spaces like airports, railway stations and parks. Drones fitted with thermal scanners can even identify potential virus carriers in a crowd.

“The pandemic has shown what drones are capable of,” says Smit Shah, director of partnerships at the Drone Federation of India, an industry body with more than 1,000 members. “Earlier drones got a bad rap because they were seen as a threat to security and privacy. But now they are here to stay.”

As per Shah’s estimates, India has about 50 drone manufacturers, 200 drone service organizations and nearly 5,000 drone pilots, currently operating in the commercial sector. The Indian drone industry is projected to touch nearly $900 million by 2021, according to a July 2018 report by FICCI-Ernst & Young, while the global market is projected at $25 billion.

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There are roughly 200,000 recreational and commercial drones in the country, each costing anywhere from Rs. 200,000 ($2,600) to Rs. 20 million ($26,000) depending on size and functionality. Before the pandemic, drones were deployed for a variety of tasks—from monitoring floods to spraying pesticides over fields, mosquito eradication, inspecting wind turbines and data acquisition for combating climate change.

Agnishwar Jayaprakash is the founder of Chennai-based Garuda Aeropspace, which is using drones to spray disinfectants in 26 cities across India as part of the country’s efforts to tackle the pandemic. COURTESY OF GARUDA AEROSPACE

 

Apart from being deployed for the pandemic, drones were recently pressed into service when a swarm of locusts entered western and central India in June, endangering crops like wheat, mustard and barley. Agnishwar Jayaprakash, the 29-year old founder of Garuda Aerospace in Chennai, says his firm’s drones are being used to tackle locust attacks in Rajasthan. They spray insecticides with a proprietary chemical, which destroys the locusts and acts as a fertilizer after the locusts are killed. The five-year-old firm also has a contract to spray disinfectants across public spaces in 26 cities for the next 8 to 12 months to address the Covid pandemic.

In Hyderabad city, Marut Drones, whose founders were featured in Forbes Asia’s 30 Under 30 list in 2020, has deployed its fleet of 52 drones for disinfecting locations, such as hospitals, bus stands, market places and government offices. Marut’s drones are also being used for making public announcements and the surveillance of quarantined zones in the southern Indian state of Telangana. Prem Kumar Vislawath, Marut’s cofounder says, “We firmly believe that technology and ingenuity can help to fight and defeat this viral attack.”

Despite the surge in demand, India’s drone industry continues to operate within a sketchy regulatory framework. In theory, the federal civil aviation ministry can provide single-window clearance for drone registration, licensing and compliance under its digital sky platform, which is an online platform for granting permissions. But that platform is not operational, so permissions are granted on a case by case basis. (Drone pilots are also not certified currently.)

This meant, for example, that the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), the country’s aviation regulator, had to make conditional exemptions to allow drones to be used for combating Covid-19 and managing locust swarms.

But the rising popularity of drones is fast forwarding the regulatory process. In early June, the aviation ministry released a draft of rules covering permits, licensing and maintenance, inviting public comments. The ministry will review the public comments and finalize what will then become UAS Rules under the Aircraft Act of 1934.

India’s drone industry is still in a nascent phase, and manufacturing is heavily dependent on imports of components, such as propellers, motors, flight controllers and batteries. “Our startup is focussed on ‘Make-In-India,’ and our main priority is to source high-quality parts from various manufacturers and assemble them,” says Garuda’s Jayaprakash.

Vislawath of Marut Drones is focussing on improving the training infrastructure for operating drones. He has partnered with the Telangana state government and the Asia Pacific Flight Training Academy, a pilot training academy in Delhi, to train drone pilots. “The drone industry has a lot of potential” says Vislawath. “The journey has started. ”

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Written by PH

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