Drone sector in India gets a major government boost

Drones being flown during the inauguration day of the Tamil Nadu Unmanned Aerial Vehicles Corporation exhibition in Chennai on Jan 25, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI - Over the last two months, start-up IoTechWorld Avigation, which provides drones for agriculture purposes, has expanded its workforce by 40 per cent amid a government push to convert India, once a drone sceptic, into a drone manufacturing hub.

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, in the budget early this month, said drone start-ups would be encouraged as India steps up the commercial use of drones in different industries as part of its Drone Shakti or power initiative.

In agriculture, the government announced 100 per cent subsidy for agriculture institutes to buy drones for crop assessment, digitisation of land records, and spraying of insecticides.

This is seen to be an opportunity for start-ups like IoTechWorld, which now has 100 staff members and is talking to several state governments about the supply of agriculture drones.

"We had to ramp up the team on the field back-office," said Mr Prashant Aggarwal, vice-president of sales and marketing at IoTechWorld.

An agriculture drone costs at least 800,000 rupees (S$14,300) and can spray pesticide across one acre of land in 15 minutes, as opposed to one hour manually.

"As the government subsidy has just been announced, other start-ups will also get into it. The competition will be there. But we are still waiting for more clarity on the announcements," Mr Aggarwal added.

India's drone industry is said to be worth more than 600 million rupees. The country, which banned drones from 2014 to 2018, has gone from viewing drones as a security risk to a major opportunity.

A terror attack at the Jammu Air Force Station on June 27 last year, in which drones were used to drop explosives, led many to believe the policy would not be relaxed.

But around three months later, the government liberalised drone rules, reducing the number of authorisations required for operating drones from more than two dozen to five, and allowing drones to weigh up to 150kg, including heavy payload.

This was followed up quickly with the announcement of incentives worth 1.2 billion rupees for drone makers, who will get 20 per cent cashback on local value additions, and a ban on the import of drones from Feb 9.

The import of drone components is still allowed, as India does not have domestic capabilities yet.

India is stepping up commercial use of drones in different industries as part of its power initiative. PHOTO: AFP

Other challenges are seen to be the scaling up for start-ups amid heavy costs and developing firmware that controls battery and flight management.

"There is a need to develop the entire ecosystem that will help the drone sector. Key to this is firmware development," said Mr Athishay Jain, co-founder and chief operating officer of robotic start-up ISPARGO.

"Challenges would be there. Product dependency on China will not go away. It will take at least five to six years depending on how the sector evolves. It's demand and supply. If demand is more, it will lead to innovation and solutions and the ecosystem will evolve."

Mr Ankit Mehta, co-founder and CEO of drone manufacturer ideaForge, noted: "Component procurement is a challenge even now, but we have found alternative channels from different countries and have also re-engineered systems with available components, which is only possible since we are vertically integrated in tech as well."

Despite the challenges, they remain optimistic about the future of the industry, as different federal bodies and state governments are adopting drone technology for mining, infrastructure, surveillance and emergency response.

The state government of Haryana is mapping all its urban centres through drones to help with infrastructure development.

"It (drone sector) has just started. But definitely, it is going to boom. Large mapping schemes, mining cooperation, healthcare deliveries. These are the kind of businesses that have started picking up," said Mr Smit Shah, president of the Drone Federation of India, who noted that with the policy now in place, the focus has to be on manufacturing, adoption and skilling.

For India, which has a vast geography with inaccessible areas and heavy congestion in its cities, a key area is the use of drones for deliveries, brought into greater focus during the pandemic.

Drone start-up TechEagle in September last year conducted cold-chain vaccine delivery by drones in the state of Telangana under the World Economic Forum's Medicine from the Sky Project. Drone delivery of vaccines has also been going on for inaccessible parts of India.

Mr Vikram Singh Meena, founder and CEO at TechEagle, said: "The pandemic has played a crucial role in healthcare demand. Now to transform and strengthen the healthcare ecosystems, on-demand drone delivery is the future."

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