Inside India’s dream for a wholly local drone ecosystem

The Indian government recently went ahead with a ban for all commercial drone imports, instead hoping the local industry would be enough for all drone-based needs for the local market.

Time will tell whether this ambitious step will yield the results that the government is hoping for or not, but the article below, which we took from the Hindu Business Online, discusses these new measures to protect the drone ecosystem in India, how they came about and what the future holds.

India’s drone manufacturing capability gets a leg-up through a mix of supportive policy and technological breakthroughs.

More interestingly, India has scrapped its $3-billion plan of buying Predator drones from the US, choosing instead to ‘make in India’. It is tempting to interpret that as an indication of India’s growing confidence in making quality drones.

The question that leaps to mind is, how good is India in drone technology?

Easing the rules

Industry insiders say it all started with the government introducing more liberal Drones Rules in August 2021, replacing the previous, more stringent Unmanned aerial Systems (UAS) legislation.

The new rules re-define red, yellow and green zones and have eased permission requirements. They essentially concern themselves with determining which type of drone can fly where, at which height, and which are the flights that require prior permission.

Writing in Mondaq, a content aggregating platform, Dipak Rao and Prerna Kapur, advocates with Singhania & Partners, note that over 25 types of permissions under the UAS Rules were condensed into five under the Drones Rules. For example, unlike the UAS Rules, the Drones Rules do not demand a ‘real-time tracking beacon’ or permission for take-off.

“These rules made testing of drones much easier,” observes Subhashis Banerjee, co-founder and CIO of Bengaluru-based AI & Robotics Technology Park (ARTPARK), a not-for-profit company set up by the governments of India and Karnataka to facilitate start-ups in AI and robotics.

The drone ecosystem was taking root even earlier, but the easier rules have gingered things up. “For a start-up,” says Banerjee, “three things are required — talent, capital and ecosystem.”

While there is no dearth of talent, and ‘capital’ is now more accessible, it is the ecosystem that is still deficient. ARTPARK’s mission is to plug this gap.

Push for indigenisation

For drones, the ecosystem is unfolding nicely, says Nikhil Upadhye, co-founder and CEO of the IIT Kanpur-incubated drone start-up CDSpace, also a company supported by ARTPARK. Banerjee says that “indigenisation levels in drones have increased from five percent to 25 percent in the last three years,” which, he says, is a good run rate.

Earlier the ‘brushless direct current’ (BLDC) motors needed to be imported. (Companies like Crompton Greaves make BLDCs, but only large ones, whereas drones need tiny motors.) Now, a Hyderabad-based company, Trishula, which makes propulsion systems and engines, is preparing itself to make BLDC motors small enough for drones.

Another element in the ecosystem is insurance, which is mandatory for drones.

While insurers do offer products — like for motor vehicles, both ‘own damage’ and ‘third-party liability’ — insuring drones is complicated, as it calls for mapping the risks in every area the drone would fly in.

But a start-up called Tropogo has jumped in to provide this risk-mapping service.

As Banerjee explains: “In Chennai, if you tell them that you want to fly a drone between Adyar and Guindy at 2PM, Tropogo will give you two quotes instantly.”

Tropogo has mapped the entire country; it has data such as temperature, weather, wind and so on, and has a  credit score for every registered drone operator.

Another component that used to be imported was composite-based propellers. In India, Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd makes propellers for large planes, but not drones. This again is being indigenised, as CDSpace is now making composite propellers.

High-altitude action

Banerjee says ARTPARK, which is housed in the Indian Institute of Science campus in Bengaluru, is on to developing ‘high-altitude drones’ — which can fly at a height of 6,000-7,000m.

“At these altitudes, the aerodynamics change very much, because the air density is much less (At 7,000 m, it is 0.59 kg per cubic metre, compared with 1.225 kg per cubic metre at ground level.),” he says.

It is okay for large aircraft because they have large engines and also move very fast, but for drones it is a challenge. Also, you would need liquid propulsion because, up there, it’d be too cold for batteries (minus 30 degrees Celsius). India needs high-altitude drones because of the possibility of high-altitude warfare.

“Today’s drones will soon be replaced by aerospace drones, which are typically compact, eVTOL (electric vertical take-off and landing) enabled, and capable of long distances in a single charge,” says Prof Satyanarayanan Chakravarthy of the Department of Aerospace Engineering, IIT Madras. “The associated technologies are on the horizon and will become commonplace in a couple of years.”

The market for drones is exploding. Apart from the armed forces, sectors such as medicine delivery, logistics, surveillance and agriculture, among many others, need drones. The government itself will be a big buyer, under its Swamitva Yojana, a scheme to map land parcels in 6 lakh villages to help provide a ‘record of rights’ and ‘legal ownership cards’ to village households.

Upadhye says this effort could need some 3,000 drones. A couple of hundred drone companies have come up in India, making unmanned aerial vehicles for different applications.

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