While studying at an engineering college in Tumkur, Karnataka, in 2009, Bhavesh Sangani bought a small toy: a remote-controlled helicopter. Before he started flying it, he tied it with a thread, just like a kite, scared it might land somewhere else. Something worse happened—the flight crashed and the toy was wrecked. What remained with Sangani, however, was the desire to fly something with a remote control. The same year, he started a club in college that made DIY remote-controlled flights or drones. “By the time I graduated in 2011, we had built 36 remote-controlled electrical planes, all self-taught through the internet," says the 28-year-old. The hobby helped Sangani land a job as an engineer with Quest Global, an engineering services company based in Bengaluru, straight out of college.

It has been nine years since Sangani picked up drone-flying as a hobby. In this time, he has seen it evolve from a geeky pastime to a fledgling, yet promising, career option that is in demand in several sectors—from movie shoots and public sector undertakings to mining companies and survey agencies.

Bhavesh Sangani with his drones. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint
Bhavesh Sangani with his drones. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint

“Since I have a lot of experience flying these birds, I can easily choose to become a full-time test pilot for new products for mapping or surveying in a few years. There is a lot of scope for future growth of this technology," says Sangani.

Globally, the market for piloted drones is forecast to more than double by 2022, according to a European Commission impact assessment report released in December 2015. The report estimates some 150,000 jobs by 2050 in Europe alone. According to an estimate last year by the non-profit body, Consortium of Unmanned Vehicle Systems India (Cuvsi), there are 40,000 drones in the Indian sky and Indians have spent more than Rs40 crore buying civil drones, even though their civilian use is illegal.

Karan Kamdar, 33, president of the Indian Drone Racing League (IDRL), which organizes drone-racing events in colleges, moved from the US to India in 2014 to explore a start-up experimenting in drone photography, DIY drone kits and robotics. When the Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar approached him in 2016 to conduct a First Person View (FPV) drone race (in which a pilot can view video feed from a camera attached to a drone through a headset or goggles) on its campus, he knew this would be big. “When this offer came to us, there was just a small group of Bengaluru hobbyists who did FPV racing. I decided to put up a website to request for teams," he says. Within 24 hours, Kamdar and his team had hundreds of inquiries. The Gandhinagar event was India’s first competitive drone race; it was won by Sangani.

Soon, Kamdar started getting inquiries from institutes, drone pilots and students who wanted to make their own drones, and teams and individuals interested in participating in the races. “Since the first league, I haven’t had time," he says. “We’ve conducted 17 events across the country in one and a half years, have grown to a community of 800 pro pilots who are training others on how to build and fly their own quads or drones, have a dedicated team of designers who create challenging tracks for their pro pilots, and have even held a night race. And this is just racing drones that I’m talking about." Kamdar has also launched a marketplace for drone spare parts, runs workshops on drone-making and piloting, and is the go-between for projects and corporate events for the pro pilots in his community. Kamdar charges Rs15,000 for hosting an IDRL event, on top of actual cost. Most pilots work part-time since it’s a niche career. “Our pilots have a career in aerial photography, mining industry, testing for drone start-ups and many other undeveloped fields," says Kamdar, adding that he hopes the government will relax its policies so that the hobby can become a lucrative career.

In October 2014, the directorate general of civil aviation (DGCA) imposed a blanket ban on all civil operations of drones in the Indian airspace, with permission possible on a case-by-case basis. “If I’m shooting a film and need government permission for drone flying, the law says that I have to get the permission for that day and time I plan to fly 90 days in advance. What if the weather that day doesn’t permit me to fly?" asks Raisin George, a documentary maker and digital communications professional at a Bengaluru-based start-up who has been practising drone flying since March 2016.

Using his DJI Phantom 4 drone, the 31-year-old has made films on treks in the Himalayas, of a few monuments outside Bengaluru, and beaches like Kaup in Karnataka’s Udupi district. He even managed to convince the Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BMTC)—after chasing them for six months—to make a documentary on Bengaluru buses. In March, the documentaryWhat Bengalureans Think About BMTC Buses won an honourable jury mention award at the Indian World Film Festival in Hyderabad. Now George regularly gets inquiries from prospective clients for aerial photography and videography, but the moment he tells them about the permissions required from DGCA, they say, “Okay, some other day."

Nihar Vartak, co-founder and director of Asteria Aerospace, a Bengaluru-based start-up that sells surveillance drones to the police and paramilitary forces, believes the government is still thinking about how to restrict use of drones, rather than how to allow people to use them safely. For start-ups, the permission process is part of business, but the policy restricts practice for pilots like Sangani or documentary makers like George, making it a restrictive option as a career. “A new policy should be formulated to allow technology to flourish, to achieve its potential. Build up some dedicated places for people to fly and test out drones, encourage a community of people who meet up, do things, experiment and create drones," Vartak says.

Sangani has invested a few lakh rupees on two videography and photography drone models—the DJI Mavick and DJI Phantom 4 Pro—that are popular with documentary makers. “Every morning, before I leave for office, I’m in a cricket ground near my home, practising with my Mavick and Phantom for 15-20 minutes," he says. During weekends, he enters drone races with his racing league team, FPV Racing Bangalore.

Projects have been trickling in. Sangani earns Rs6,000-15,000 for a day’s work as a freelance pilot and Rs35,000 to Rs1.5 lakh per day if the drone is his. However, he is still not ready to take up drone flying as a full-time job—it’s still a nascent market for pilots like him, and the permissions required make it a difficult one.

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