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Published on: July 9, 2022, 2:42 p.m.
The advent of ‘Drono-nomics’
  • Agriculture drones efficiently study external factors like weather, soil conditions, and temperature, which help the farmers to make well informed decisions

By Ritwik Sinha. Consulting Editor, Business India

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is usually known to stick to the schedule, while appearing in any public function. But, on 27 May, when he arrived at Delhi’s Pragati Maidan to inaugurate the Drone Mahotsav, he reportedly overstayed, driven by his own inquisitiveness to see and interact as much as possible with the participants in the exhibition. “The enthusiasm seen in India regarding drone technology is amazing,” he commented on the occasion. “This energy is visible; it is a reflection of the quantum jump in the drone service and drone-based industry in India. It shows the potential of an emerging large sector of employment generation in India”. 

Visitors to the grand show later vouched that the enthusiasm factor as underlined by the Prime Minister was indeed the key calling card of the event. There were signals all over the show of immense possibilities that drone sector promises to offer in commercial and other activities. From a mere hobby sports till not too long ago, to the emerging primary data collection and mining source, drones have literally flown quite a distance in the past one decade. And, now, in the medium- to long-term, it is expected to cover a larger distance -- both vertically and horizontally.

The jury is now divided about whether it would rival satellites at some stage for data collection or not, but its efficacy, proved in several global pockets vis-à-vis defence applications, agriculture, infrastructure, construction, urban planning, health, logistics, etc, simply project a greater role for it going ahead. 

While the rise of drone business is considered inevitable, some hard policy push from the government in recent years is slated to make India a global hotspot in this sector. The Prime Minister himself is credited with being in the forefront of ushering in an environment conducive for the sector, with required policy modifications.

And, this has subtly created a universe of start-ups, which have shown aggression to make a mark across the value chain (manufacturers, service providers, data collection and analysis, etc), even as the bigger entities of India Inc appear to be toying more with its relevance as an end-user. 

There are many firms particularly with a footing in agriculture business, which have begun using drones for different purposes. Another surprising push has come from some defining government programmes in record keeping, which has taken the lead in proving that drones contribution can be invaluable. There is no denying the fact that there are concerns about the lack of trained manpower to bear the growing volume.

It’s equally important to figure out effective anti-drone technologies to keep the potential misuse of drones at bay, as their volumes in the sky grow. At some stage, there would also be the need to create a structured system to control drones flight.

A calling card

The subtle evolution of drones as a vibrant vertical of remote sensor imaging application is now certainly turning into a global phenomenon, where more countries are showing inclination for its larger adoption. Stakeholders in the business will tell you drones have reached to the present stage of prominence after having gone through several experimentations in the last 25 years.

From a mere hobby sport instrument, it has grown to draw attention of the world, with countries like the US and Israel beginning to use them for border patrolling and monitoring on a large scale since 2010. And, the last decade has seen its advent in a big way, with Israel proving its efficacy in sectors like agriculture. 

Simultaneously, its utility has also been proved in other domains like construction and infrastructure, health, basic civic services and even transportation, where major logistics firms like UPS and Fedex and retailers like Amazon are looking at options of drone-driven deliveries – a trend which, many analysts believe, will become a reality in the not-so-distant a future. 

Drones probably draw their strength from this new age axiom – data is the new oil. Data collection and crunching, and drawing strategy to add more efficiency to a practice (especially linked with commercial activities) is a common pursuit in the era of machine learning, artificial intelligence, internet of things, etc.

And, here, drones have emerged as an easy to use, less expensive, and more accurate source (among all remote sensing tools – usually satellites or special aircraft to take images and collect data) tool. There are several reports suggesting how it can change the game in different spheres. In an era where climate change driven concerns have led to closer monitoring and data crunching of natural resources, drones are increasingly becoming a popular option. 

Take the case of agriculture. According to a report by a leading agri input firm, drones when applied in agriculture, offers a host of benefits in basic applications like spraying, dripping and granule dropping. It could be used in seeds dropping in forestry and plantation and induced pollination in seed production.

Among all the remote sensing technologies, it is probably the most equipped to provide best imagery data vis-a-vis crop field survey, soil health, pest identification, disease diagnosis, plant stress and growth monitoring, yield monitoring, etc. The report underlines saving in water volume, better RoI, safer for operators, comparable efficacy, etc, as the key benefits when compared with manual processes. 

“Agriculture drones efficiently study external factors like weather, soil conditions, and temperature, which help the farmers to make well informed decisions,” says Shyam Sundar Singh, co-founder, DeHaat, a well-known agriculture start-up, operating in four states currently. “The data thus gained helps regulate crop health, crop treatment, crop scouting, irrigation, and carry out field soil analysis and crop damage assessments. The farmer can improve production capabilities through comprehensive irrigation planning, adequate monitoring of crop health, increased knowledge about soil health, and adaptation to environmental changes. Furthermore, abrupt climate changes are adding new layers of complexity to the agriculture industry, increasing the demand for technological solutions like agriculture drones to raise crop output and company efficiency,” he further explains. A.G. Agarwal, chairman, Dhanuka group speaks no differently, when he observes: “The world is moving towards large-scale scientific farming called precision farming and, here, drones will have a major presence”. 

“It is not only agriculture,” emphasises Smit Shah, president, Drone Federation of India (DFI). “Drones are capable of making a world of difference to operations in the sphere like infrastructure, where it can bring down the time consumed in surveying and planning by one-tenth. In health sector, it can ensure delivery of medicines in the emergency cases in the radius of 100-150 km within an hour from strategic hub points. The benefits are just limitless”.

Elaborates Vikramjiet Roy, managing director, Maccaferri India (the Indian subsidiary of Italy-headquartered global construction major) further: “Many site activities can be accomplished more quickly and accurately using a drone than with traditional techniques at a lower cost. Drones in construction industry provide an unrivalled view of a site at a fraction of the cost, allowing real-time monitoring, follow and analyse progress, save time and develop better plans on-site. Drones are a sustainable medium as they reduce the need of manual vehicles, fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions resulting in reducing the overall project cost”.

According to Roy, drones are going to be an intrinsic part of construction industry operations, going ahead, as advancements in drone software systems would enable the creation of precise contour maps and 3D models, based on footage and data collected. Also, in any situation where sending in personnel is too risky, such as dangerous structures, regions where hazardous materials are leaking, or areas where flammable materials provide a fire risk, employing a drone would be a safer option. “Use of drones in construction industry is expected to bring a digital transformation,” he says succinctly.

Defence sector, of course, has a lion’s share in terms of utility of drones (an analyst puts the utility ratio in the range of 40:60 between defence and non-defence usage) and globally it is estimated to grow at a steep rate in leading countries including India. A recent report by Allied Market Research projects a quantum leap growth journey for defence drone industry -- from $2.13 billion in 2020 to a staggering $16 billion plus by the end of 2030. 

Hard push 

“Drone is the next dot com; it is going to revolutionise our life,” says Karan Dhaul, chairman & co-founder, Theta Enerlytics. According to Dhaul, the sector is now believed to be promising and full of potential thanks to a sea-change in the government’s attitude in facilitating it to fly high.

“Not too long ago, we had a situation wherein ministries were not talking to each other and Ministry of Home Affairs was particularly concerned by its misuse. But much of that has changed now,” adds he, while underlining that it has been the resilience of some early movers who have run different promotional programmes and proved to the authorities of its multiple benefits that has brought them to this stage. 

“The enthusiasm factor you are noticing today has mainly emerged in the last one year or so,” says Vipul Singh, co-founder & CEO, Aarav Unmanned Systems, one of the early movers in the game. And the PM is credited with the promotion of the sector to this stage, with new policy initiatives. For his inclination to give a big push to the drone industry, Modi incidentally has also earned for himself a new moniker -- Dronacharya. 

There have been a slew of initiatives especially in the recent past. Last August, the government notified Liberalised Drone Rules 2021, which contained as many as 30 provisions for giving a serious push to the sector. This was quickly followed by announcement of Production-Linked Incentive (PLI) scheme for drones in September. Early this year, the Union Agriculture Ministry unveiled a monetary grant programme for purchase of agricultural drones. Drone certification scheme has been notified on 26 January 2022, making it easier to obtain type certificate by drone-makers. 

Furthermore, Mission ‘Drone Shakti’ has been announced for supporting drone startups and promoting Drone-as-a-Service (DrAAS) in this year’s budget announcement. To ensure that there is adequate manpower supply in the market even as the sector grows, DGCA has approved 15 drone schools across the country around February end.

Meanwhile, in another breakthrough move, the government in February launched Kisan Drone scheme with a slew of attractive incentives. These include providing 50 per cent (or a maximum of Rs5 lakh) subsidy to SC-ST, small and marginal farmers of northeastern states, as also women, to buy drones.

For other farmers, financial assistance will be given up to 40 per cent (or maximum Rs4 lakh). "Till recently, there was a conception that drones were meant for armed forces and fighting enemies. However, the Kisan Drone Suvidha has added a new chapter in the direction of modern agricultural facilities of the 21st century," Prime Minister Modi had commented while unveiling the scheme. 

In a cumulative sense, these initiatives have sent a strong signal to the marketplace that the government is now ready to provide all kinds of support. “The basic policies have been liberalised and there is a clear momentum now. From the drone ecosystem perspective, everybody and everything seems to have come together,” says Smit Shah. 

More in the sky 

The stage, therefore, seems to be set for flying of more drones in the Indian sky becoming an inherent component of operations across several sectors. Its most remarkable growing presence is expected to be noticed in the agriculture sector. “Agriculture in India is at the cusp of a very significant technological transformation where drone applications have the potential to deliver substantial value to the farmers. At the same time, it is equally pivotal to identify and address the diverse needs of our farmers and deploy the drone technology that is in line with those needs,” says Simon-Thorsten Wiebusch, country divisional head, crop science division, Bayer (India, Bangladesh & Sri Lanka).

 “We look forward to initiating commercial operations of drone-based spray services for multiple crops across key states in India and help deliver true value for the farmers in India,” he further adds. Companies like DCM Shriram are now making decisive moves in fast adoption of drones. 

According to Roshan Lal Tamak, executive director & CEO, DCM Shriram (the company has sugar plants in UP) was using tractor sprayers for spreading micro-nutrients in the fields of its farmer partners. But, now, it is graduating to drone-led spraying system and it is proving more beneficial. The company has targeted to use the drone for spraying in land parcels admeasuring 2,000 hectares this year, by joining hands with two drone service providers – Krishi Viman and Unnati. “Our preliminary experience shows that, when you are using drones, the consumption of water goes down by 90 per cent. Plus, a tractor will take one hour to cover one acre. With drones you can complete spraying in five-six minutes. These are encouraging signs,” Tamak points out.

“In the next two-three years, you will notice drones making inroads in agriculture by way of becoming favourite spraying tool at bigger farms. After reaching to a matured scale, its larger use will begin in terms of helping out at various stages of crop production,” observes C.D. Mayee, a former agriculture commissioner. 

The government’s decision to cover drone business in its PLI scheme (meant to give a major push to the established and promising sectors) has no doubt cheered the entire industry. On 6 July, the civil aviation ministry released the second provisional list of 23 beneficiaries under the PLI scheme for drone and drone components. These included 12 firms in drone manufacturing and 11 in component manufacturing.

Adani-Elbit, Garuda Aerospace, Throttle Aerospace Systems, Aarav Unmanned Systems, Asteria Aerospace and Dhaksha Unmanned Systems were among the shortlisted companies in the second round. In the first round released in April, 14 beneficiaries were notified. “More companies are getting covered under this scheme and that’s a great news,” emphasises Dhaul of Theta Enerlytics. 

Stakeholders vouch the increasing buzz on drone is emanating from the growing realization of its criticality in epic-scale civic projects. “Drones are now being deployed in a major way in projects like Svamitva for land mapping in many states,” says Aarav Systems’ Vipul Singh. Project Svamitva launched by the union government in 2021 (spearheaded by the Ministry of Panchayati Raj) entails accurate land mapping for digital record keeping of over 600,000 villages by 2025. This will eventually facilitate ‘Record of Rights’ to village household owners with issuance of legal ownership cards (property cards or title deeds) to the property owners. 

Most of the states have made preliminary moves in this direction, with Haryana leading the pack and is slated to become the first state in touching the finishing line for the mapping of the entire state. And, here, drones are that critical tool to undertake the mammoth exercise. According to Svamitva scheme dashboard, drone surveys have been completed in nearly 160,000 villages in the country so far. “Drone mapping has other large scale utilities. It can help agencies like National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) in settling Rs90,000 of encroachment on its land parcels across the country,” Singh points out. 

While the big ticket take off of drone business seems to have begun, industry stakeholders are pointing at a couple of challenges which they will have to grapple with in the next few years. “There is an acute shortage of drone pilots and we will need more certified agencies to create an efficient work pool,” observes Agarwal of Dhanuka.

According to Vipul Singh, there are a couple of issues that need to be addressed urgently. “In next five-ten years, you can have Indian firms in the list of top ten global drone manufacturers. But for that we will have to ensure consistent financial support to component manufacturers. Reaching to the critical mass is crucial and India has a good chance in the space as there is a growing mistrust for Chinese drones,” he emphasises.

A critical question meanwhile doing the rounds these days is: will the sector remain a typical start-up play? Or the men of India Inc will step in to add to their portfolio and cash in on opportunities in a growing field. “Big firms are not typically end users as many believe. Companies like Adani, Reliance, Tata, etc, have begun taking positions,” Shah underlines. “The entire sector is in a positive mood and challenges do not look that serious vis-à-vis opportunities facilitated by government’s favourable response. In the coming years and in the best case scenario, we may well need air traffic control (ATC) kind of mechanism to monitor thousands of drones which may be in the sky doing different activities. The anti-drone system will need to be remarkably improved as the distinction between good and bad drones will be a must and neutralising the latter will be a challenge,” points out another executive of a start-up. 

Considering the positive tidings, both industry and government are furnishing big growth numbers. “In next five years, it could become a Rs50,000 crore business from the current level of a couple of thousand crores,” says Shah. A recent government paper, meanwhile, has projected a similar quantum leap theory. “The drones and drone components making industry may see an investment of over Rs5,000 crore over the next three years. The annual sales turnover of the drone manufacturing industry may grow from Rs60 crore in 2020-21 to over Rs900 crore in 2023-24. The drone services industry (operations, logistics, data processing, traffic management etc.) is far bigger in scale. It is expected to grow to over Rs30,000 crore,” the paper said. Putting it simply, every critical stakeholder currently seems to be convinced of the advent of drononomics era in the medium-to-long run.

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