Making drones fly

India may have banned private use of drones but there are entrepreneurs who are legally building and using them


Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

New Delhi: Francesco’s Pizzeria, a Mumbai-based pizza delivery company, got on the wrong side of the law in Mumbai last May when a video of it delivering a pizza with an unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, went viral. Drones are being used by government agencies for over a decade. However, it’s illegal for private companies and individuals to fly a drone in public spaces without the permission from the appropriate authorities. The Director General of Civil Aviation also decided to ban the use of drones for civil applications in October 2014. Meanwhile, companies such as Amazon.com Inc. are talking about using drones for delivery of goods. Mint profiled five companies in India that are legally building, and using, drones.

A VEHICLE FOR FLYING CAMERAS

Company: Quidich

Founders: Rahat Kulshreshtha (late 20s), Gaurav Mehta (early 20s) and Tanuj Bhojwani (early 20s)

Founded: January 2014

Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

From a film maker in London to becoming a technology entrepreneur in India, Rahat Kulshreshtha has followed his passion for making documentaries and developing aerial technology solutions. His company started out as one that provides technology for aerial shoots using drones, but now also does monitoring, mapping, surveillance and film shooting using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

“In 2013, we were doing a shoot for a sports car on a Yamuna Expressway and I wanted to have a wider shoot area, but that wasn’t possible without using expensive helicopters,” said Kulshreshtha who pursued a career as a film maker for five years. “That’s when I started researching for alternatives and got interested in UAVs.”

Later that year, he met Gaurav Mehta and Tanuj Bhojwani, both engineers, at a fellowship programme in Delhi and they hit it off and eventually started an aerial solutions company—Quidich in January 2014.

The start-up, which provides aerial technology services that can cost between Rs.20,000 and Rs.1.5 lakh a day for filming and photography, live sports, surface mapping, emergency response, real estate among others, has even worked with some Indian news channels to cover last year’s Lok Sabha elections.

The company also used its technology to cover the Nepal earthquake disaster in April for the Indian news channel Headlines Today.

“While we were in Nepal, Humanitarian UAV Network (a global volunteer network of professional, civilian and hobbyist UAV pilots which provides consolidated information during disasters) contacted us to take part in search and rescue operations going over there,” said Kulshreshtha, the company’s co-founder and chief executive officer.

His company has also secured permission to use drones to cover the ongoing Indian Premier League. “We are working very closely with DGCA (Director General of Civil Aviation) to work out the regulations. For every technology, a legal framework is a necessity,” he acknowledged.

BRAIN FOR DRONES

Company: NavStik

Founder: Nitin Gupta (34)

Founded: July 2013

Nitin Gupta. Photo: P. Akhilesh/Mint

When Nitin Gupta decided to shut down operations of his first company that provided modelling and stimulation services to help aircraft makers visualize the design and development of aerospace systems in 2011, he decided to do what he liked most—designing and integrating electronic systems and algorithms for automating unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). That very year, he started researching and developing prototypes and two years later set up NavStik to provide technology that could automate the flying of drones.

“While I was developing the electronic system and the underlying algorithms for drones, I consulted with a lot of researchers from National Aerospace Laboratories and defence labs and a lot of people became excited with what we were doing,” recalled Gupta, who is a post-graduate from the University of Maryland in the US.

“And that’s how we started getting offers to develop applications for UAVs,” he said.

Since then, the concept has evolved into a full-fledged platform that acts as a brain for drones for coordinating and communicating with them. It includes a flight computer (an electronic system that includes processor and sensors) and the operating system that runs on that flight computer to control them. “The operating system is generic in nature, like Android, and allows application developers to write programs for specific applications,” Gupta said. For instance, he explained, if you want to use drones for medicine delivery, you can create business logic for that and run on the operating system just like various apps run on Android.

Similarly, you can have apps for video processing, coordinating with multiple devices or pushing data on the cloud (metaphor for the Internet).

At present, the company provides its solutions to individual researchers, aerial services company, drone makers, government research labs, the National Aerospace Laboratories, Defence Research and Development Organisation and the Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. It is also looking to offer customized solutions to companies.

The company, which raised funds from Pune-base incubator Venture Center in January this year, is planning to launch the next version of the OS with new algorithms.

REAL TIME DATA, IMAGES AND 3-D VIEW

Company: Aero360

Founders: Pragadish Santhosh (25), Lakshmi Narayanan (25), Nijandan Shanmugavijayan (25)

Founded: July 2014

Pradgadish Santhosh. Photo: Sharp Image

For Pragadish Santhosh, the love affair with drones started about four years back when he was doing his third year of graduation. He worked on a project that involved unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and has never looked back since. After providing training and seminars on building drones, Santhosh started building drones himself for providing commercial service such as collecting geographic information system data for companies.

His first attempt wasn’t that successful. “The customers had a lot of issues on what we were building,” he recalls. During the time he was teaching students and sometime researchers to build drones, he teamed up with two of his friends, Lakshmi Narayanan and Nijandan Shanmugavijayan, to do more research on prototypes and working models of drones that could change the way companies collected data. Eventually, they set up a company Aero360 in July 2014.

“We use drones to collect real time data and images and provide 3-D (three dimensional) view of an area, surface or surroundings,” said co-founder Santhosh. Providing the hardware is not enough. “They key is the software. We analyse data and images to create 3-D models.”

Construction and infrastructure companies have been exposed to a variety of services that UAVs can provide. Areas that the aerial tech services company is planning to tap include agriculture to monitor the health of crops and oil and mining industries.

While, the drone ban has curbed the demand for such services, the Chennai based start-up has been working with the state government on a couple of projects and for other projects it seeks permission from Directorate General of Civil Aviation as well as police department when needed.

SPATIAL DATA FOR BUSINESS GROUPS

Company: Skylark

Founders: Mrinal Pai (23) and Mughilan T.R. (24)

Founded: June 2014

Mrinal Pai &Mughilan T.R. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint

In an age where data has become the new currency, it is no surprise that drones are being used to collect spatial data for business groups. Mrinal Pai and Mughilan T.R., both in their early 20s, started Skylark to provide businesses with data and commercial solutions using aerial sensing and mapping technology.

After winning the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Systems Engineering Award in 2013, Pai and Mughilan gained confidence to build drones that could be used commercially and started an aerial solutions company in Bengaluru.

The company, which builds and designs drones, raised about Rs.1 crore earlier this year. “We have committed funds from Angel and other investors, which we are using to do our research and upgrade technology, while DGCA (Directorate General of Civil Aviation) is in process of making regulations for drones,” says Mughilan.

Started in June 2014, the company has executed around five projects including supplying a drone to a regiment of the Indian Army before the drone ban put a halt on flying drone in public areas by private entities. The key focus, though, remains on data solutions that can be either put to use directly, or be fed to other software such as a geographical information system.

“We are hoping the guidelines will be out by the year end. Meanwhile, we are putting our resources and efforts to diversify the technology solutions that we provide,” said Mughilan. “While we have provided solutions for real estate and infrastructure companies, we plan to extend our operations to agriculture and oil and mining companies.”

DRONES FOR GOVT, RESEARCH LABS

Company: Edall Systems

Founder: Pritam Ashutosh Sahu (27)

Founded: February 2011

Pritam Ashutosh Sahu. Hemant Mishra/Mint

The National Aerospace Laboratories’ (NAL’s) project Nayan, which involved developing an unmanned surveillance vehicle, was the first real opportunity that Pritam Ashutosh Sahu got to experiment with drones when pursuing his degree in aeronautical engineering, way back in 2009.

Even as the job market was tough in the aftermath of the Lehman crisis, and the situation was more challenging for specialized students like Sahu, who, after graduation, started training individuals, students and researchers to build drones.

Before setting up his own company, Edall Systems, to build drones in 2011, he had a short stint at a French consulting firm Altran Technologies SA, where he worked on a project for the aircraft maker Airbus SAS. The company focused on training and seminars to design and develop drones while also working on projects that it got from government labs like NAL and Defence Research and Development Organisation.

Edall primarily works with government departments and research labs, providing them with the technology solutions for developing unmanned aerial vehicles. Though, “in case of a government project, we sometimes provide services as well,” says Sahu. For instance, the company has worked with the Kerala State Planning department to collect aerial data.

Due to the ban on flying drones in public spaces, there is hardly any demand for individual and commercial use of drones, but the demand from government bodies and research institutes continues to grow steadily, according to Sahu. The seven-member company, which has invested Rs.50-60 lakh, sells about 10 drones per month on average. Each drone costs between Rs.1.5 lakh and Rs.5 lakh. Once the Directorate General of Civil Aviation comes up with the regulations, the company hopes to extend its operation into commercial services area.

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