Technology is exponentially changing the face of the world in the 21st century. UAVs/drones are one of the front runners amongst such technologies, which are increasingly gaining traction over the past decade. A host of industries are employing drones for multiple tasks such as monitoring projects, surveillance, Geo-tagging of assets, reaching out to markets, etc. Governments, too, have started to set their best foot in to embrace this futuristic technology for bettering governance, reaching out to every corner of the country, and heralding new pathways for the growth of their countries. India wasted no time in embracing this new technology. As with any other nation, drone technology has set its foot in India for military applications, which later diverged into scores of civilian applications. The recent deployment of drones to deliver medical aid during the pandemic in India just underscores the extent to which drones have already intertwined with daily lives in India. Before dwelling deeper into India’s association with drone technology, let us first understand the basics of drone technology.
What are drones?
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), more commonly called ‘drones’ in general parlance, are basically airborne crafts without human pilots on board. With the advancements in digital technologies, their utility has proliferated in the 21st century, albeit they have a much longer history.
Drone systems are essentially comprised of four components, i.e., UAV, which is the heart of the system and possesses fixed wings, or either a single or multi-rotary fans build for flight; Payload, which ranges from medical aid to ordnance; Ground control station, which can be user-controlled or operated via satellites, is capable of controlling the flight, payload, sensors, mission planning and tethering the data link system of the drone; Datalink, that acts as the transmission network allowing the drone to communicate with the ground operator typically utilizing radio wave technology.
Back in the 1990s, the Indian Army, for the first time, imported UAVs from Israel, and soon the Indian Air Force and Navy followed suit. These drones have made their combat debut during the Kargil against Pakistan for photo-reconnaissance along the border. Though UAVs were primarily developed for the military and aviation industries, drones have found their way into the mainstream because of the range of services they render.
Drones and their versatility
Drones today have a wide range of applications in India. They perform a wide range of jobs for private operators, commercial operators, and governments. These scores of operations can broadly be classified into two categories, namely Civilian and Military. We shall first see its mainstream civilian applications.
Civilian applications: A part and parcel of our everyday lives
- Agriculture: It can carry out a great range of activities in agriculture such as crop surveys, spraying fertilizers & pesticides, soil health assessment, identification of crop type, estimation of crop acreage, assessment of crop health, and crop yield forecasting and also helps insurance companies in surveying the crop loss. Farmers of Andhra Pradesh’s Amravati region have successfully deployed drones to spray fertilizers and pesticides. Similarly, state agencies of Maharashtra have utilized drones in the Marathwada region for estimating crop loss due to deficit rainfall, thereby paving way for timely intervention and compensation to farmers.
- Disaster management: Drones can be used to map the risk-prone areas through aerial surveillance. They are widely used to locate people stranded in disaster-hit areas. NDMA has used four drones to scan and locate the stranded people during Uttarakhand floods. Similarly, The National Disaster Relief Force has taken the help of drones to scan the landslide site at Malin in Ambegaon of Maharashtra, where the drones have covered a 2.5 km radius and live-streamed visuals to the control room.
- Transport: As a pilot project, the state Government of Maharashtra has deployed two drones to keep a tab on weekend rush hour traffic on the 95-km stretch between the Lonavala and Khalapur. Based on the data gathered, 15 trucks were fined for breach of traffic rules. The National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) has emplaced drones in the Salem-Chennai green corridor expressway to ensure accuracy in terms of land required for the project. This survey was conducted to estimate the extent to which coconut and mango trees will have to be uprooted.
- Security and surveillance: Drones have been a good friend of law implementing agencies. They act as a spy in the air. They have been widely used by police agencies during the lockdown to find and penalise the persons who have ventured out into public places during lockdown hours. The Tamil Nadu Police Department is probably the first force in the country to deploy drones for a murder investigation in an inaccessible area. Two lighter drones were used for 6 hours to reconstruct the crime scene by creating 3D images of the same. On the same note, The Karnataka Police Department deployed 12 drones equipped with powerful cameras and night vision capability to detect illegal sand mining.
- Insurance: Traditionally, insurance agents have to visit the fields and make an assessment which is a time-consuming process. Now drones have obviated the need for such lengthy obsolete procedures. Already a private insurance company has utilised drones for the assessment of crop losses in Maharashtra following a flood in 2016, which not only improved the speed of insurance settlements but also reduced the costs incurred by the company on human resources.
- Health care: Like agriculture, health care is one such sector where drones have been revolutionizing the delivery of services. They can be used to deliver medicines, vaccines, basic medical kits, blood units, transportation of life-saving organs, monitoring malaria vector habitats, etc. They have been of great help during the pandemic in the delivery of medical supplies to home-isolated patients.
- Forest management: Forests are usually inaccessible for the administrative agencies to visit the fields and safeguard. Drones fill this administrative lacuna to prevent illegal activities and monitor the health of forest resources and wildlife. The Haryana Forest Department has inducted drones to monitor wildlife and prevent illegal activities in the Aravalli Range. Similarly, the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change green-flagged a project by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) to induct drones in select forests around the country for effective monitoring of the tigers and their habitats. The Hara Bhara project of the Telangana govt is another great advert for the utility of drones in this sector.
- Commercial activities: Drones in the recent past have witnessed a huge boom as they are utilized for a legion of commercial activities like professional videography, delivery of goods for E-commerce firms, sale of drones for private activities, etc. Swiggy, the online food order and delivery platform, has partnered with Garuda Aerospace to begin trial runs for using drones to deliver groceries in Delhi-NCR.
There are many other applications, like using them in weather forecasting, mining activities, urban management, and, more importantly, in military activities, which we shall discuss in the latter half of the article.
Towards the fag end of 2014, just as the drone sector had started garnering commercial traction, a major e-commerce company announced to deploy drones to deliver their products in the metropolitans of Mumbai and Bengaluru. At the same time, a pizza was delivered in Mumbai through a drone. These incidents alarmed the authorities, and as a knee-jerk reaction flying drones for commercial purposes was outlawed, and a blanket ban was imposed on its imports, citing a threat to national security. Again in 2018, sensing the imperative to commercialise the utility of drones, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) released the Civil Aviation guidelines legalising the flying of drones for commercial purposes. Since then, the commercialisation of drones for civilian purposes has witnessed a steep ascendancy. Since then, the flying of drones has been treading through a series of regulatory turbulences as the Unmanned Aircraft System Rules, 2020, have brought in several restrictions upon the flying of drones, particularly to private players. To clear the bottleneck, recently, in 2021, the government has notified Drone Rules 2021, which ushered in liberalisation to a great extent. Some of its salient features are;
- Several permissions and approvals were abolished. Number of forms reduced from 25 to 5. Types of fees reduced from 72 to 4.
- User-friendly online single-window system called Digital sky platformfor application and approvals
- No permission required for operating drones in green zones.
- No restriction on foreign ownership in Indian drone companies & no requirement of import clearance from DGCA.
Self-certification and digitization of several approvals through the Digital Sky platform are expected to pave the way for hassle-free manufacturing, buying, and flying of drones in India. DGCA also notified an airspace map for drones on the Digital Sky platform marking all the red and yellow zones listed for every city in India. This helps drone operators to better plan their flights and evade going astray into the restricted zones. Alongside liberalising the drone usage rules, the government has embarked on many other proactive measures to position India as a global hub for drone manufacturing by the year 2030 as a part of Atmanirbhar Bharat.
- Recently, the government has notified a Performance linked incentive scheme for the manufacturing of Drones and Drone Components. The government has allotted 120cr for the scheme that spreads across three years, i.e., 2020-21 to 2023-24. The incentive for a manufacturer of drones and drone components shall be about 20% of the value addition made by the firm. The scheme has special provisions for the MSME sector, widening the beneficiary base.
- Alongside the Drone Rules 2021, the government also launched the Standard Operating Procedure for Agricultural drones. Earlier, the DGCA was placing the Agri drones and other civilian drones on the same regulatory pedestal. However, now Agri drones were delinked from civilian regulations and are subjected to the new set of liberalized SOPs, uniquely formulated for Agri drones, allowing them to operate with an improved degree of freedom.
- Mission ‘Drone Shakti’ has been announced in the union budget 2022 for supporting drone start-ups and promoting Drone-as-a-Service (DrAAS).
- New Drone import policyhas been notified on 9th February 2022, banning the import of foreign drones and freeing up the import of drone components to rejuvenate the domestic drone manufacturing industry.
- 15 drone schoolshave been approved by DGCA across the nation as of February 2022. More are in the pipeline.
- As a result of the proactive initiatives by the government, India has already made some inroads in the direction of kick-starting drone manufacturing in India. For civilian purposes, many start-ups, such as social drones, Airpix, Garuda Robotics, Edall systems, etc., have already mushroomed in India. Airpix has made drones to help rebuild Uttarakhand post the catastrophe, and Idea Forge start-up has been providing “Netra” drones to the CRPF for surveillance operations. This has been a great sign, and future looks promising for this industry.
Drones in Warfield: A force multiplier
The remarks made by Indian Army chief Gen MM Naravane that drones are the future of warfare underscores the vitality of drones in military operations. India’s acquaintance with military drones dates back to the 1990s after it procured them from Israel. After Losing a manned reconnaissance aircraft Canberra PR57 to Pakistani infrared homing missiles, India wasted no time in deploying unmanned Israeli Heron drones to carry out the task. Since then, India has been procuring a range of surveillance and combat drones from Israel. However, the military applications of drones in India so far have been confined to mere surveillance and reconnaissance roles. Nonetheless, the future holds a wide scope for drones to serve the Indian armed forces in myriad ways. Let’s see a few of them.
- Bombing: This is one of the most valued services of drones in warfare. They could be used as a mobile platform to launch ammunition, guided bombs, air-to-surface missiles, air-to-air missiles, cluster bombs, anti-tank guided missiles, or other types of precision-guided munitions, etc. They render invaluable services, particularly during cross-border operations like surgical strikes. India could take a cue from the assassination of Iranian general Soleimani by the US using a Reaper drone nearby Baghdad airport in 2020 to exterminate terrorists and left-wing extremists.
- Surveillance, reconnaissance and mapping: Drones boast of their unique abilities, such as staying stationary in the air, maintaining an unblinking stare, hovering over the same place for hours, etc. These unique features help the operators to take still images and videos of enemy installations on the ground, observe and track the enemy movement, map the ground terrain of the enemy territories, and spy on their activities. India has been making extensive use of this ability right since the Kargil operations. India has been conducting extensive trials of the indigenously-developed Rustom-II surveillance drone in the backdrop of flaring border tensions with China.
- Information war: The popular perception of the war is curated by the videos people outside of the combat zone watch and discern from, and Drones have played a crucial role in this regard. Drones could video capture the terrorist module operating in the volatile areas and expose the state-sponsored terrorist activities of our hostile neighbour. In 2008, Israel has released footage of a drone strike on what it claimed were terror modules operating in Gaza to contest the notion that Israeli drone strikes targeted Gaza civilians.
- Delivering Aid and Relief Assistance: Usually, wars happen in the most rugged terrains or the most inaccessible places, so much so that it’s a herculean task to deliver supplies and replenishments to the forces operating in these areas. Their agility facilitates them to operate in almost every terrain and atmosphere, day-in and day-out. They can deliver food, medical aid, ammunition, tools, small weapons, etc. During the pandemic, drones delivered covid vaccines to armed forces stationed at remote locations near the China border.
India’s fleet and projects in pipeline
As of today, India operates a moderate range of drones sourced from both foreign companies and domestic ones. Some of the drones that India operates are DRDO Rustom, DRDO Netra, DRDO Ulka, DRDO Nishant, Trinetra UAV, DRDO Ghatak, TAPAS-BH-201, NAL/ADE Golden Hawk, etc.
A $3 billion deal for the purchase of 30 armed MQ9 Reaper drones was made with the US. These are highly dreaded drones, which the US has extensively deployed in the middle east with a telling effect. Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) is developing the CATS Warrior project. In this system, one manned aircraft shall coordinate with and guide a swarm of drones to strike the enemy targets. A 20 million USD deal was signed by the Indian Army to procure high precision surveillance switch drones with night time capabilities. SMASH 2000 anti-drone system that neutralizes incoming enemy drones is being under procurement from local manufacturers. HAL is developing a Drone helicopter to airlift heavy payloads to bases located at higher altitudes.
What’s crippling India’s drone industry?
Though industry sentiment remains bullish on India’s drone manufacturing prospects, certain hindrances aren’t letting the Indian drone industry take off at full throttle. Much of the focus in the recent past has been on manufacturing of the drones. Most of the government initiatives were incentivizing the hardware manufacturers. Little focus was beamed on developing software, which is crucial for Drones. The lack of a skilled workforce is another stumbling block.
The severe shortage in skilled manpower just isn’t helping the cause at the moment. Regulatory inconsistency has been so prominent that rules are taking a U-turn every now and then, thereby discouraging the investments from private agencies. To help lift the domestic industry, the Government has imposed a blanket ban on imports of drones, depriving Indians of the access to versatile and cost-competitive drones in the domestic market. Further compounding the list of existing woes, the Indian public sector has been so snail-paced that they are notorious for missing the deadlines in the recent past. As a result, the Indian Army once rejected DRDO’s Tapas and opted for Israeli Heron. Also, Indian start-ups are severely crunched of financial resources, with meagre aid coming from the government and the culture of venture capital still in a nascent stage in India.
The Road Ahead
With a fast-growing demand for drones, India is well poised to develop a multibillion-dollar industry of drones in the coming decade. According to global market intelligence and advisory firm BIS Research, the global drone market, which is dominated by the US, Israel, and China at present, is touted to reach $28.47 billion this year, and India will account for about 4.25 percent of that. Government reckons that drone industry is expected to grow to over INR 30,000 crore in the next three years, and the drone services industry is expected to generate over five lakh jobs in three years. This optimism stems from the increasing footprint of drones in several sectors in India.
Even from a military point of view, there is an impending need for India to strengthen its forces by including drones in its arsenal. Recently, India has witnessed a first-of-its-kind terror attack that was carried out by drones on Air Force Station in Jammu, injuring two personnel. This reaffirms the changing nature of attack and warfare tactics that India cannot afford to ignore.
As of today, we are excessively dependent on the US, China, and Europe for specific components for drones like BLDC motors (brushless motors) and electronic controllers, cameras, etc. So, to insulate India from supply disruptions and over-reliance on external players, it is crucial to ramp up our domestic manufacturing infrastructure through a slew of measures like creating a dedicated fund on the lines of NIFF and AIF, upgrading the curriculum of the skilling mission to match drone industry, incentivising the domestic manufacturers on the lines of SEZ and more importantly a liberalised regulation regime to name a few. The drone sector may be nascent today, but it has a huge potential to bloom in India tomorrow. And if we fall short in the race in the initial stages, we will not be able to catch up later.
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