Could you remember when you saw a drone the last time – hopefully in a wedding! As the latest fad, grand weddings suddenly appear incomplete without drones doing aerial photography.
Almost everyone today is familiar with the term ‘drone,’ and everyone does likely remember the kids flying toys as the earliest airborne drones. It is becoming an increasingly popular way to refer the small (usually) helicopter-like devices that are being flown as ‘drones.’
The word ‘drone’ is used not only to cover a $15 hobby aircraft that a child flies, but also to describe a high-tech $15 million weapon used on a battlefield. Those devices don’t exactly serve the same purpose. They have different names too. Drones are also known as ‘unmanned aerial vehicles’ (UAVs). Many professionals in the industry believe that UAVs need to have autonomous flight capabilities, whereas drones do not. Therefore, all drones are UAVs but not vice versa – all UAVs are not drones.
While drones make most people think of ‘unmanned aircrafts that can fly autonomously – that is – without a human in control,’ it can actually be used to describe a wide variety of vehicles. For example, there are seafarings (like submarines), or unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs), and/ or also even land based unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) – they also count under the given definition of drone.
While most of us are still fathoming drones as our own sky-patrolling aircraft, the next major step for them is already happening i.e., the unexplored underwater tasks. Scientists with National Ocean Service estimate that more than 95 percent of the earth’s oceans have so far gone unexplored in absence of an equipment like underwater drones.
Sensors: The core
Prior to understanding the deployment of UAVs or drones it is important to understand that a drone is just a meagre platform to carry the sensors which form the core of what is desired from the UAV platform. Without the sensor package a UAV is nothing but a fancy toy. With the advancement and miniaturization of sensor technology UAVs are finding new ways to solve myriad problems. With the advent of 3D printing technology and advanced materials, the design and development cost of UAVs have also gone down significantly, making it possible for governments, private and public sector to consider using them. Gone are the days when a UAV carried a simple video camera – today they carry fused sensors which can be deployed under varying weather conditions. Some of the important sensors such as hyperspectral sensor and LIDAR are beginning to revolutionize agriculture, and town and country planning. With the development and integration of ‘sense-and-avoid’ (SAA) system, UAVs are poised to take another quantum leap in deployment for delivery operations as they will be able to perform complex flight operations in the national airspace.
Drones in India
India’s drone journey which began more than two decades ago, deploys one of the largest fleets of military drones in the world; however, its journey in the civilian and commercial arena has only just begun.
The UAV sector in India is beginning to look up with a number of service providers, startups engaged in innovative design and development. There are over a dozen UAV companies that have found their niche in this sector and are engaged in military, civil and commercial sectors.
Drones & Mission Smart Cities
India with its smart cities program spread across its diverse landscape provides an ideal laboratory for the deployment of UAVs and related technologies. India, in keeping with the global trend of transforming existing cities into smart cities, has identified nearly 100 such cities for transformation. The smart city initiative launched by the Modi Government in 2014 is expected to find new vigor which will provide a much-needed boost to the UAV industry.
According to CISCO, smart cities are those cities that use digital technology to connect, protect and enhance the lives of the citizens. The UN has estimated that by the year 2050, 68% of the world population will be living in urban areas. In such a scenario drones become an ever-increasing important piece of puzzle for ushering in efficiencies in the management of the urban environment.
UAVs become effective tools only when they are available at the grass root levels of every arm of government and civil society, and operate within a set of well-defined rules and regulations. With the recent advances in cloud computing, AI, wireless sensors, networked unmanned systems, big data, and Internet of Things, billions of devices are being connected together, providing a substantial opportunity for UAVs in smart cities program.
|“A drone is just a meagre platform to carry the sensors which form the core of what is desired from the UAV platform. Without the sensor package a UAV is nothing but a fancy toy”|
The use of UAVs in geo-spatial surveying and geographical information systems is revolutionizing the way smart cities operate by bringing down cost for such operations. A land survey which takes weeks and months while done manually by a surveyor can now be done in less than an hour.
UAVs can relay accurate and real time information which plays an important role in the civil security of cities. They may provides information to the civic administration to deploy proactive measures rather than reactive ones. Such a decision-making process is a hallmark of a smart city concept.
Drone technology today has matured to the point where it does not take an engineer or a technician to operate. Even a normal high school graduate can be trained to operate it very effectively. A good quality UAV system is fully autonomous, meaning it can take off, conduct the mission and land back in base all by itself. Such autonomous UAVs are now being used by law enforcement agencies for smart policing activities. Integration of UAVs with mobile applications, forensic software, secure and reliable wireless networks can help smart cities become a safe place.
The recent news has caught attention that our own police department in Uttar Pradesh’s Muzzaffarnagar district has tuned quite hi-tech and used a drone to nab thieves who were accused of looting a trader and were fled to a sugarcane field to hide themselves after committing the crime.
If India has to build new or convert its existing cities into smart cities, then the deployment of UAVs becomes crucial. UAVs are able to quickly collect highly accurate data, and aggregate, analyze and deliver them for the planner with the help of latest software. UAVs are used from asset management to programming the most efficient delivery routes.
UMass Dartmouth student Amir Ehsani Zonouz has won the first mobility idea of proposing using quadcopters, a type of small-scale drone, that find free parking spots, determine the shortest path to that spot, and help guide drivers to the designated space either by the driver following the drone to the spot via a mobile app or directly through a car’s communication system.
Drones & Smart Villages
Smart villages practicing ‘precision agriculture’ are now synonymous with the use of drones. Drones are being used for crop spraying, dusting, monitoring, as well as crop insurance. Terra Drone India said it has completed the aerial survey of 4,200sq.km. of agricultural land for water resources department of the Maharashtra Krishna Valley Development Corp (MKVDC). The survey helped government officials get a clear picture of the crops sown and the type of irrigation used, allowing MKVDC to update its archaic maps in half the time of traditional surveying methods.
Drones, used for crop surveillance can drastically increase farm crop yields while minimizing the cost of labour in walking the fields. It also allows insurance claims companies to calculate the exact damage to crops or the extent of loss by viewing the same in details.
Drones help in doing crop health imaging, wherein the colour contrast technology helps one to check the true health of crops. With images and videos, one can see exactly what parts of a field are struggling with plant disease, insects or the lack of water.
Drones & Disaster Management
UAVs are providing critical support in search and rescue operations post natural disasters as witnessed during floods in Kerala, Kedarnath, earthquake in Nepal etc. They now complement the search rescue helicopters making them an essential part of the NDRF tool box.
UAVs are also being used as a heavy duty fire fighting equipment, for giving first responders visual cues to find survivors inside unstable buildings and helping firefighters get visuals on how to best attack a fire. It’s also easy to see how useful drones could be in the aftermath of earthquakes and other massive disasters where people are trapped indoors in unpredictable settings.
|“UAVs become effective tools only when they are available at the grass root levels of every arm of government and civil society and operate within a set of well-defined rules and regulations”|
In March 2018, the lush green Kolukkumalai forest area in Tamil Nadu witnessed a forest fire, which claimed several lives. A forest fire is a vicious phenomenon. Fanned by constant winds, and with no substantial barrier apart from trees that fuel it further, a forest fire can spread far, quick and has devastating consequences. The drones developed by Madras Institute of Technology were deployed to rescue the victims. They have better penetration in areas where regular manned flying craft cannot enter.
Drones & Medical Services
Netherlands has successfully experimented by transporting defibrillators via drones to patients in distress. With various similar instances coming to the fore, drones could be significantly used for transporting medical supplies to remote areas. In May 2019, CNN reported that the first drone delivery of a donated kidney ended with successful transplant at University of Maryland Medical Center.
In Malawi, a poor African nation with high rates of HIV, UNICEF and the Ministry of Health used drones to deliver dried blood samples from remote village health clinics to a centralized hospital for analysis.
In June 2019, in Uttarakhand, a drone carrying a blood sample was sent from a district hospital in Nandgaon to another primary health centre in Tehri in 18 minutes. It is currently studying the routes to set up the required infrastructure atop hospital roofs that would serve as drone ports to receive medical cargo.
A team of scientist from the Department of Aerodynamics in Bengaluru working in partnership with the Karnataka Department of Forest has come out with an idea to restore forestland by using drones and seed bombs saving a number of hours of manual intervention.
Drones & crowd control
In India UAVs have played an important role in crowd control measures for the police during mega events involving religious gatherings such as Kumbh Mela, demonstrations, political rallies etc.
Drones & other services
Recently, the Madras High Court has issued an order directing the government of Tamil Nadu to speed up the deployment of UAVs in the areas affected by illegal sand mining. This is a clear indication that it’s just not government and the civil society but also the judiciary that has caught on to the effectiveness of drone technologies.
|“The recent news has caught attention that our own police department in Uttar Pradesh’s Muzzaffarnagar district has tuned quite hitech and used a drone to nab thieves who were accused of looting a trader and were fled to a sugarcane field to hide themselves after committing the crime”|
Last December 2018, Zomato the food delivery service provider acquired a drone company, Tech Eagle, a Lucknow based startup to help create hub-to-hub delivery network powered by hybrid multirotor drones.
In India, the application of UAVs has found synergies with inspection of infra projects such as solar and wind energy projects, and laying of highways and rail roads etc. A Kolkata based company Kadet Defence Systems has mapped over 350km of terrain for the IL&FS intended for a highway development for the NHAI. According to its CEO and founder Avdhesh Khaitan, “Drones are a small step to enhance the life of its residents in leaps and bound.”
Recently drones have been deployed by the Indian Institute for Toxicology to collect water samples to study water pollution, and are being used extensively in the monitoring of river basin development projects such as National Mission for Clean Ganga.
In India drones have caught the imagination of the young with several universities and educational institutions offering courses on unmanned systems. In states such as Andhra Pradesh, a drone lab has been set up. Industry parks such as the Andhra Pradesh Aerospace Defence and Electronics (APADE) Park are focusing on creating a vertically integrated ecosystem for drone manufacturing, training and testing.
It is said that manned flight will soon be replaced by unmanned one as the technologies mature at breakneck speed. While considerable research is being done by aerospace majors such as Airbus, Thales and Boeing for the next generation UAV technologies involving air taxies, countries such UAE have taken lead to implement the technology in their urban environment. The US Army is already considering using drone for medevac of soldiers from the battlefield. It won’t be long when unmanned air taxis become the norm.
|“The UAV sector in India is beginning to look up with a number of service providers, startups engaged in innovative design and development. There are over a dozen UAV companies that have found their niche in this sector and are engaged in military, civil and commercial sectors”|
The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) has recently indicated that India will soon take the first step towards paving the way for UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) or drones engaged in e-deliveries and air taxis. They have invited expression of interest from experts who can conduct experiments to understand ‘beyond visual line of sight’ (BVLoS) operations in the Indian environment. This indeed has been a giant step in the overall thinking of the regulator who was recently bound by a turf war between DGCA and the MHA. It was only after a sustained campaign by the Indian UAV community consisting of manufacturers, service providers and enthusiasts that the first set of regulations were enacted roughly two years ago. Much work needs to be done and a mechanism is to put in place for regulations to keep pace with the fast-changing technologies in the UAV sector. The single window system of clearance for permissions set up by the DGCA is a step in the right direction although the window is yet to become fully operational.
A report by Goldman Sachs estimates that businesses and government will spend nearly 13 billion USD on drones between 2016-20. The Indian drone market is projected to grow at a CAGR of 18% with investor activity expected to take off once the DGCA passes the new set of regulations involving drone delivery and BVLoS operations. If we look at the current scenario and the developments taking place in India and internationally, we can say with confidence that drone technology in sync with smart cities can significantly enhance the life of a nation by improving efficiencies.
Siddharth Sivaraman serves as the Chief Business Officer of the Andhra Pradesh Aerospace Defence and Electronics Park. He has been a part of the CII defence team where he set up the Defence Advisory and Consultancy Services. He did his Masters from School of Advance International Studies Johns Hopkins University. He has worked with High Altitude Airship technologies, US with Lt. Gen James Alan Abrahamson. Currently, he is in advisory position at a few hi-tech drone companies focussed on defence sector. He evangelises benefits of UAV technologies to both government and corporate segment.
Subhashis Mukherjee, an ICT expert on Smart Infrastructure, a technologist to have several patent(s) to his credit is also a serial entrepreneur to work with innovative technologies in the field of Telecom, Power, UAV, AI and FinTech domain. He is actively involved in developing various applications related to UAV industry. He is presently Managing Director at M2M Cybernetics Private Limited and Co-founder at XaasTagRegtech, SchaffenTek Solution (Singapore) and Texas Mechatronics (USA).