The Drones Are Coming
Business Today|October 17, 2021
Draconian rules had kept drones grounded in india. But new, liberalised regulations have untethered the industry and opened up a new market—enterprises.
Nidhi Singal
What’s common to the Lal Dora villages in Haryana, the steel city of Jamshedpur in Jharkhand, and India’s Silicon Valley, Bengaluru? It’s drones; thousands of drones.

These three places and thousands of other villages, towns and cities will soon see drones dotting the skies. In the future, they may deliver shopping packages or medicines. But for now, they are being used to map and survey land. Why drones? Well, for one, they are much faster than conducting manual surveys and can also easily access hazardous, difficult-to-reach places. Then, their literal bird’seye view, powered by high-resolution cameras, captures accurate topographical data for mapping or for planning infrastructure development in the case of cities.

It’s no surprise, then, that the Indian government chose drones to help achieve its ambition of creating a comprehensive e-property ledger under the Svamitva (Survey of Villages and Mapping with Improvised Technology in Village Areas) scheme launched in April 2020. The government plans to use thousands of drones to map roughly 660,000 villages between 2020 and 2024. That has given India’s drone industry a massive boost.

“It is estimated that 3,000-4,000 drones will be used over the next four years [for Svamitva],” says Smit Shah, Director of Partnerships at the Drone Federation of India (DFI), an industry-led body to promote the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). More importantly, he adds, “It is the largest commercial opportunity a drone company has ever got in India.”

It’s also an opportunity to correct a lopsided market. Until recently, homeland security accounted for nearly 70 per cent of the Indian market, according to industry sources. The rest was allowed for civil use only after exceptions by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), India’s civil aviation regulator. Outside of the defence sector, drones are mostly used in agriculture for crop dusting and monitoring crop health, and in the energy sector to oversee hazardous operations or monitor oil pipelines.

That’s slowly changing, with other sectors also aiming to harness the power of drones. For example, a recent pilot showed drones could be used for last-mile delivery of medical supplies. “The ease of operations, cost-effectiveness, optimum utilisation of manpower, and rapidly developing technology are increasing UAVs’ application in almost all sectors,” says Abhishek Verma, Partner and Lead, Aerospace and Defence, KPMG India.

But these advantages weren’t unknown. What gave the sector wings is the government releasing a set of liberal regulations in August that made it simpler to own and operate drones. Barely a month later, the government approved a three-year production-linked incentive (PLI) scheme worth ₹120 crore, which is double the combined turnover of all domestic drone manufacturers, in FY21. “With the roll-out of the Drone Rules 2021 and now a huge boost to drone manufacturing through #PLIforDrones, the journey towards becoming a global drone hub by 2030 has begun,” tweeted Jyotiraditya M. Scindia, Union Minister for Civil Aviation. The government hopes the PLI scheme will attract investments worth over ₹5,000 crore in three years.

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