Something in the air: Drones finally making a comeback to Indian skies
One morning in early February, Aakash Sinha, the CEO of Omnipresent, a New Delhi-based robotics company, had a rather strange request from a group of professors at a private university: Could his company build a drone that would deliver a gold medal on stage at their convocation ceremony?
Sure, it was a gimmick. But it wasn't especially difficult. After all, Omnipresent's custom-designed drones had been used by the Delhi Police last year when riots had broken out in Trilokpuri in East Delhi to spot 70 bags of bricks that were to be used as projectiles, a large amount of weapons, and bottles of acid; it had worked with the DRDO to hash out a plan to use drones at the border; and it was working with a major medical college in New Delhi to prototype air ambulances to send medicines to remote areas where no cars can reach. Delivering a medal through the air a few hundred feet away? Easy.
And yet, Sinha had a few concerns: what would happen if a medal hanging from a drone somehow unbalanced it mid-flight, for instance, and how close could you fly a drone with rotors spinning at 12,000 rotations per minute to someone for them to take down the medal safely.
Still, it was a cool assignment. Less consequential than delivering first-aid kits, perhaps, but more, well, fun. And so, Sinha said yes, he could, indeed make a drone that could pull off some gimmickry.
Gimmickry is, indeed, what propelled commercial drones to the forefront of public consciousness. At the end of 2013, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos took CBS correspondent Charlie Rose into a secret room at Amazon's Seattle headquarters and showed him the company's latest plan: 30-minute deliveries using drones.
"I know it looks like science fiction," Bezos told Rose. "It's not."
The project, called Prime Air, seemed revolutionary, but was widely panned. Popular Science was sceptical. Gizmodo called it "truly revolutionary [marketing]". Still, the idea that you could, potentially, place an order online and have a quadcopter chuck it through your window or drop it on your porch was exciting.
In May 2014, Mumbai's Francesco's Pizzeria released a YouTube video which showed a drone delivering a pizza to a high-rise in Worli. It turned out later that the video was simply a promotion —no actual pizza was delivered. Still, it didn't stop the Mumbai police from demanding an explanation. They also asked Air Traffic Control at the Mumbai International Airport whether the pizzeria had sought permission for its experiment.
Francesco's refused to comment on the incident, but one imagines that its defence would have been simple: there were no guidelines that prevented people from flying unmanned aerial vehicles in Indian airspace. Francesco's wasn't doing anything illegal?—?it was simply playing with technology that others in the country and around the world had already been experimenting with.
Just a month earlier, Headlines Today had used drones to shoot panoramic views of crowds gathered at key constituencies such as Varanasi, Amethi, Vadnagar and Muzaffarnagar at the height of the election season; the Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh had tested them to keep track of both tigers and poachers; and even as thousands died in the worst floods in Uttarakhand in five decades, the National Disaster Management Authority had used four unmanned aerial vehicles to scan areas that were impossible for rescue workers to reach. Drones, it turned out, were capable of more than just gimmicks. Even wedding photographers were using them to get sweeping, romantic aerial footage as bride and groom walked down the aisle.
In October 2014, the Indian government did what it does best: it banned drones. The Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) issued a stern public notice in the first week of October citing "security threats" as the reason why no one could fly drones in Indian airspace till further notice. It states:
Clearly, no wedding photographer was going to go through that much red tape for a few pretty pictures.
It was a blow both to businesses that were interested in using drones and operators that provided these services. Airpix, a Mumbai-based company with high-profile clients like Reliance Energy had to shut down its flagship aerial photography service after the DGCA notice. Line, a production company that used drones for aerial photography for Karan Johar's Dharma Productions among others, had to stop using the devices. Housing.com, a residential property-listings website, which introduced aerial photography in January 2014, had to cancel the feature.
"We lost close to 60 percent of our customers since the ban came into effect," says Anirudh Gupta, President of Business Insights at Funaster, a five-year-old company based in New Delhi that assembles and sells drones. "Earlier, 90 percent of the inquiries we got translated into sales. Now, it's about 30. People back out once they hear about the regulations."
Yes, the ban was disappointing, says John Livingstone, a former Navy officer who specialised in flying Herons?—?massive, military-grade unmanned aerial vehicles used by the Armed Forces for surveillance. "But we were happy that by banning drones, the DGCA at least acknowledged the existence of a civilian drone industry in the country!"
Livingstone retired from the Navy last year to embark on a bunch of projects: He started a magazine called Unmanned, an industry publication aimed at UAV makers, paramilitary forces, the Indian Armed Forces, defence personnel and drone hobbyists; he founded Johnette, a technology company that makes drone accessories like charging pads; and he became President of the Consortium of Unmanned Vehicle Systems India, an industry lobby he founded to give a platform to all stakeholders in the Indian drone industry, which, he estimates, is potentially worth billions.
Weeks after the ban, Johnette held a conference about the future of unmanned systems in India where officials from the DGCA and the Ministry of Civil Aviation were peppered with questions from Indian drone manufacturers: What do you mean we can't fly drones? What about the millions of rupees we've invested in this market? How soon can we have some regulations in place?
"The officials had no answers," says Livingstone.
Unhappy with the lack of information, members of the Consortium — Livingstone won't say how many there are — put together a document that they submitted to the DGCA to help the regulator formulate guidelines for drone usage in India at the end of last year. The 28-page proposal addresses how to make drones and how to fly them, how to ensure standards and certify operators, how to deal with licensing, insurance and safety, and more.
"Look, it's simple," says Livingstone, "We have the knowledge and the expertise to help them put together a framework for flying drones in India. I don't believe the DGCA even has a single, qualified UAV officer on board."
Earlier this month, the Indian Express published a report that quoted a senior DGCA official saying that the regulator would come out with a framework for civilian drone use in India in a couple of months — much sooner than anyone had ever expected. Livingstone is ecstatic and believes that there's a good chance that Consortium's document could have sped the the DGCA along.
"I'm really happy," he gushes over the phone. "Really, really happy."
The DGCA hasn't yet put out an official statement lifting the ban on drones yet but the timing of the report is no coincidence. In February, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) unveiled proposed regulations for the commercial use of small drones.