The Next Big Thing Post COVID-19! Creating a Drone Economy in India

[CrossPost from Authors Blog]

The Post COVID-19 world gives us an unprecedented opportunity for reimagining economies, as well as the technologies that will growth. In India, the possibilities for “new economy” activities and employment based on drones are significant. Regulations regarding airspace management, strategic choices, technologies adopted and investments can aid the market to grow rapidly.
Today, India in one of the top countries among the drone importing nations². While the value of drone imports are driven by military imports, with the new regulatory policy in place, we India is seeing a hockey stick growth in commercial (B2B, B2G, B2C) & Recreational applications driven end-use drones. Study by BIS Research predicts that the market for commercial drones might supersede the military market by 2021, approximately reaching 900 million USD.

Drones in flight in downtown Reno, Nevada, during “shakedown” tests for NASA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Traffic Management project, or UTM. The final phase of flight tests, known as Technical Capability Level 4, ran from May through August 2019 to study how the UTM system can integrate drones into urban areas. Credits: NASA/Dominic Hart
Regulations and Potential Indigenous Solution for Enabling Hyper Growth
To support growth of drone-based services, the Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) first unveiled draft norms for usage of Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) in October 2017, which came intro effect on December 2018. A few key highlights from the latest revision of the document³ are:
● UAVs are classified into five segments based on their weight including payload
● All, except under 250 gms, are to be registered with a Unique Identification Number (UIN)
● Civil Aviation Requirements (CAR) rules will regulate UAVs depending on their classification
● A permit is required for commercial drone operations, except for those in the Nano category flown below 50 feet and those in the Micro category flown below 200 feet
● Drone pilots must maintain a direct visual line of sight at all times and can not fly above 400 feet
● Each flight is to be tagged and recorded with the data made available to the regulator on demand
For any emerging technology, awareness drives engagement, which subsequently drives adoption. At this point, bringing regulatory certainty is the most important factor that will drive growth. For the long-term predictable growth, however, regulatory certainty is not the only factor that drives growth: we must consider the situation in its entirety and then carefully define the roadmap at a tactical level.
India will need at least a million drone pilots by 2025, creating enormous employment opportunities
Consider requirements for talents to keep with the over 600 thousands drones⁴ in the sky already, India will need at least a million pilots by 2025 to support the demand for drone flights. Establishing a training and certification is an urgent need. Leveraging India’s already established engineering education infrastructure and bringing them under central certification authority will ensure quality and also safeguard that India as a nation meets the demand of the .
Application of the drone technologies will evolve rapidly throughout the next decade, might include use cases that we may not have even considered. Proactive orchestration, fit for purpose processes and making it “first time right” mindset will ensure drone technologies can deliver at its fullest potential.
UTM Considerations for Indian Airspace Management
“UTM” stands for “Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) Traffic Management”. It’s an issue that is critically important to the drone industry. Urban population of India has seen a rise from 17.1% to 29.2% and number of people in India’s cities will overtake the rural population in the next three decades. Current Land Infrastructure is already exhausted and that automatically makes Aerial infrastructure the next best alternative. Population density / square kilometer makes it a mandate that we take a broad enough view to design a system that can serve 1.5B people. Without a foolproof system that ensures all stakeholders that manned aircraft and unmanned aircraft will be able to share the skies safely, proper “drone integration” into the airspace will not take place.
5Fs of UTM: Technology Considerations
Regulatory impact is currently one of the most important factors affecting the pace of adoption of drone-powered solutions by business and government entities. Drone regulations have changed in recent years from being treated as a niche hobby to becoming part of regular aviation operations, to a point where national authorities have started developing special regulatory frameworks to address the most urgent issues. The following guiding principles are critical for future success:
● Future Proof: Intelligent (Detect and Avoid) and scalable technology that not only supports tactical needs but also meets strategic demands of 2035 and beyond
● Failure Proof: Tamperproof solution where Public and National is treated as a central theme
● Fungible: Enables seamless integration between multiple higher airspace systems/Policies/other UTMs/Anti Drone Systems
● Flexible: Supports unseen and unheard demands of 2035 and beyond
● Fit for purpose: Democratic, to support innovation, to create the jobs of the future and accessible to all
The biggest challenge is not designing the system, but that of testing the system in a controlled environment, simulating scenarios to quantify risk with current sets of policies/ infrastructure.
2019–2035: Expected Maturity Curve of RPA and Drones in India
For the next couple of years, RPA/UAV deployments are expected to be limited within “Visual line of sight” use cases (Infrastructure maintenance, Survey and Mapping, Agriculture, Media, mining etc) driven by start-up ecosystem and drone service companies.
In India, the six areas where we expect drones to be used are Agriculture, Insurance, Entertainment, Utilities, Mining and Insurance. While most visible usage of drones today is in wedding photography and videos, we expect Agriculture, Infrastructure and Insurance to grow rapidly in the near future.

Figure 1: Potential usage of drones in India
The Economic Cost of Traffic congestion in India surpasses Rs. 60,000 crores per year, which makes Low Altitude Aerial and Urban as a natural choice. Uber⁵ has identified India as one of their air taxi test markets.
“Beyond Visual line of sight” drone operations have already gathered momentum in last mile delivery, Medical and Pathological delivery, Disaster recovery etc.
In addition, “Beyond Visual line of sight” operations have already gathered momentum⁶ and expected to be a reality by 2023. Other BVLOS use cases include, last mile delivery (3 out of 7 start-ups selected by DGCA for BVLOS solution are delivery companies), Medical and Pathological delivery (Zipline Partnered with Apollo), Disaster recovery (Bihar Flood) further strengthens the interest.
BVLOS operations will fuel unprecedented innovations in the aerial mobility space primarily because there is No/limited entry barrier to enter drones as a service business especially in the Micro- Small- Medium segment. While DGCA’s Digital Sky->NPNT initiative aims to address “Visual line of sight” tactical challenges in an urban setup, but packaging Urban operations (400ft) and Rural operations (Precision Agriculture) as a single solution needs further consideration.
Business models like “Pay as You Fly” and “On demand Drone Services” are expected to evolve in the next 3–5 years, and push hyperlocal commerce with handsome financial incentive. This will create an uncontrollable chaos in the national airspace, if not addressed now.
Strategic Choices and Investments for a Future System
Following are the “arrowheads” that need deep experimentation and multi-layer advocacy, so that as a country, we make strategic choices and investments towards a homegrown UTM specific to India which can be integrated safely, efficiently into the national airspace.

Figure 2: Arrowheads for experimentation and multi-layer, multi-agency advocacy and collaboration
Summary
It’s important to take a step back and re-visualise how the future of sky will look like in the next 10 years and make strategic investments towards a homegrown UTM specific to India which can be integrated safely, efficiently into the national airspace. Low altitude aerial operation is sensitive and vulnerable to hyperlocal environment change. Designing a robust UTM system that can support BVLOS operations at scale needs active and joint participation from Government, Industry and Academic Partners.
References:
Increasing need for smart avionics and rising defense spending would surge the growth of India unmanned aerial vehicle market, 6WResearch, August 2017
India fastest growing market for unmanned aerial vehicles, Economic Times, 26 March 2018
DGCA RPAS Guidance Manual, Revision, 3rd June 2019
India has over 6 lakh rogue drones; agencies analysing sky fence, drone gun tech, Economic Times, 30 September 2019
UBER will launch Airtaxi in India by 2023, UITP.org India, September 2018
Government of India’s policy on delivery drones taking wing, Economic Times, 9 October 2019

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