Iranian drones have wreaked havoc in war-stricken Ukraine. When it comes to drones until a few years back it was the USA Vs China, but now all countries have realized the potential of these flying machines.
Bill Gates had predicted that drones, overall, will be more impactful than one can ever imagine or think to help society in a positive way, but sadly, today they are being used in warfare at a very large scale. Where does India stand in the Drone Making Spectre?
Today, India uses drones for a variety of causes. It has BVLOS (Beyond-visual-line-of-sight) flights, mosquito eradication drones, drones used for agricultural needs – like spraying pesticides etc., then there are seed-copters used for aforestation (planting seedballs). During the pandemic Indian drones supplied vaccines to far out regions, as estimates suggest that more than 24 lakh Indians die of treatable conditions every year simply because medicines don’t reach them on time. Drones are bridging the gap when it comes to inaccessibility of roads and other means of transport.
In India, drones can be seen everywhere, in weddings events and agricultural fields. There is a huge demand for drones and the Government is encouraging the industry to grow further. How is this emergence happening? Smit Shah, President of the Drone Federation of India is filled with ideas of zestful entrepreneurship and innovation for the Indian drone industry. He shares his views about how things in India’s Drone industry are shaping up.
“Since 2018, we have had multiple regulations and lot of work is happening on that front. Finally, in August 2021 we had our regulations liberalised. So, after multiple policy attempts and iterations we were able to crack the right policy. This is the policy of liberalisation and incentive towards the industry. Since mid 2021, we have had a boost in the ecosystem. We have multiple start-ups now, over 200 working in the drone manufacturing and technology space in the country.” says Shah.
The idea to ease the regulations has worked wonders for the industry and start-ups getting involved means a lot of innovation and experimentation is ongoing in the Indian drone industry. So, how are drones being used in governance and management? There is a lot of talk of drones being used for surveillance at borders. In what ways does the Indian Government use drones? Shah says that multiple State Governments, the Union Government, various departments and private sector corporations are now adapting to drone usage at a very large scale. The Government has launched the ‘Swamitwa Scheme’ where 6.5 lakh villages are being mapped across the entire country through drones. The National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) has mandated monthly monitoring of all highways via drones. The armed forces are looking for buying drones for security surveillance on all borders using drones. Also they are being used in tracking logistics.
India is using drones in almost all important departments, especially in defence the country is trying to procure and develop the best possible technology for which many private corporations like the Adani Group have forged Joint Ventures with major International drone component manufacturing companies.
For the purpose of warfare India is using drones on the borders to keep an eye on the enemy. It endeavours to make more advancement in the domain. How are things shaping up on that front?
“During warfare you need round the clock monitoring and intelligence and capacity building. So, surveillance capability on the borders and logistic capability on the border means transporting various kinds of resources to the border outposts, including the high altitude regions is what is being looked at now. In India, Unmanned Aircraft Vehicle (UAF), Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA), Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS) are technological terms but are interchangeably used. All these are being used in our border security,” informs Shah.
India is rapidly scaling up its drone industry and is investing a lot on research and development. Not just for domestic use, it plans to use drones intensively for border security by the armed forces. Does India manufacture raw materials and components used in drones? What plans does it have to reduce dependence on other countries and boost its own home-built production capability? What is the road ahead?
“A majority of the components are imported from different countries. Now we have Indian start-ups and corporations who are engaged in building local supply chains and local design on drone components. The PLI incentive is encouraging for manufacturing drones and their related components in India. If we see the overall drone ecosystem of drones in India, it envisioned success lies on 4 key pillars. First is ease of doing business, under which policy was liberalised and much of the licence fees was reduced. Second is the financial incentive, like the Production Linked Incentive(PLI) under which domestic manufacturing has a 20% incentive with almost zero upfront commitment. One is not needed to do any plant or machinery investment or any minimum employment. It is a straight investment based on one’s capacity, so if you produce goods worth INR 100, you get 20% of your value addition. This is a sunrise sector, so rather than complicating incentives by tying them up with employment or revenue or upfront capital investment – it’s all straight in the face. The third part is protectionism or favouring the local industry via an import ban. At present, import of drones as a whole are banned but the import of components is not. Fourth is enhancing our own skilling, R&D, trying to becoming Athmnirbhar (Self Dependant) in every possible way and benefit our own industries. Though, a lot of technology for the smaller drones comes from across the world including China, US and Europe, for the bigger drones, like the ones used to patrol the borders or for offensive ops, it is specialized so that is coming from our partners or the domestic manufacturers,” elaborates Shah.
Many reforms by the Government have been introduced to encourage domestic production. It is confident that its own ecosystem will battle all odds and will be able to emerge as a frontrunner in drone making. The Government and industry are working in tandem to achieve this goal. In January, 2022, the Indian Government has offered a 100% subsidy or 10 lakhs, whichever is less, up to March 2023 to promote the use of drones for agricultural purposes and reduce the labour burden on the farmers. Also a contingency fund of INR 6000 per acre has been set up for hiring Drones from the Custom Hiring Centres (CHC). Together, the subsidy and contingency funds shall help farmers access latest drone technology at a very reasonable price.
Does India export drones to any other countries. If NO, by when does it intend to do so? What are its plans to become a recognized name in the drone export segment?
“Slowly and steadily India is looking at exporting. We are looking at certain initiatives to scale up our export segment and expect good results very soon. Our first goal has to be design independence. In terms of supply chains it is difficult to become 100% India made as many raw materials are imported. For that we need to have our own designs and supply chain reliability. In supply chain reliability there are 3 things, first we have domestic supply chains, second we have primary supply chains and third is we have secondary alternate supply chains. If we build good supply chains then we do not have be dependant by the traditional definition because then we have backup & balance of the supply chain. In today’s global civilization we can’t become completely independent. The right approach is to be dependant but also balanced. Some aspects of our drones may be better than others and vice versa. We are not yet ripened in this as our Information Technology (IT) sector is. India is trying to have its own electronic manufacturing fabs, so things are gaining momentum. In five years the game will totally change,” asserts Shah confidently.
The industry and Drone Federation of India is optimistic that in a few years to come India will be a champion drone manufacturer and may export to other countries as well. Be it the procurement of raw materials or other critical components it seems to be progressing fast for self-reliance in the drone industry.