With autonomous deliveries picking up pace, how soon will drones take to the Indian skies?
Imagine standing outside your apartment complex, waiting for your food to be delivered. You check the app through which you placed the order. A few minutes later, a drone lands in front of you, carrying your food. A quick verification check using facial recognition through a camera on the drone or a one-time password on the app opens up the payload. Your order is delivered.
It’s not as futuristic as you might think. If recent developments are anything to go by, food delivery drones could soon take to the Indian skies. Earlier this year, the directorate general of civil aviation (DGCA) gave permission to more than 10 consortiums to test “beyond visual line of sight" (BVLOS) drone projects in designated airspaces. Besides food delivery, these projects include everything from product deliveries and cargo to military and disaster management requirements.
So far, most drone operations in the country have functioned in a pilot’s “line of sight"(within visual range). BVLOS, touted as the next big thing in the commercial drone industry, would see drones flying beyond an operator’s visual range and conducting far more complex functions. Every consortium, which includes airlines such as SpiceJet and hyperlocal delivery service Dunzo, has an unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) partner, as well as entities that will look at aspects such as drone traffic management, data analytics and safety systems.
Contactless deliveries have picked up pace during the pandemic—and autonomous delivery is expected to remain in demand in the years to come. According to a Reuters analysis report in May, over the past seven months investors had pumped at least $6 billion (around ₹44,580 crore) into more than two dozen firms involved in the autonomous delivery of goods and food, from drones to heavy trucks.
Nagendran Kandasamy, founder and director of Bengaluru-based Throttle Aerospace, which is working with three consortiums, says food delivery is an entirely new challenge since it’s the first time drones will be used properly in an urban setting. “Navigation is the crucial part here," says Kandasamy. “Most of the use cases we have seen so far have not been in urban pockets or packed cities like Bengaluru. Food deliveries are expected to happen in highly populated areas. That’s the major challenge from the safety and risk management perspective."
Technologically, Kandasamy explains, the drones will have to be “highly sophisticated in terms of redundancy". They will have to talk, and communicate, with the other drone that might be sharing the airspace. “This kind of technology is mandatory for delivery drones," he adds.
The communication between two or more drones will be supported by what is known as a UAS traffic management (UTM) system. This is essentially a powerful software system, the kind used for aircraft management, to enable data exchange, smooth navigation and communication between drones. US space agency Nasa, for instance, is developing a UTM system that will provide services related to airspace design, corridors, severe weather and wind avoidance, congestion management, terrain avoidance, route planning and re-routing.
In addition, research is on globally to make it easier for robots, including drones, to literally find a customer’s front door. In November, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) made public a new algorithm-based system that enables a robot to use visual clues, such as a front door or a garage, to chalk out a route to its destination, rather than coordinates on a map.
Agnishwar Jayaprakash, founder of Garuda Aerospace, which is part of the Aerospace Industry Development Association of Tamil Nadu consortium, emphasizes the importance of BVLOS operations for drones in the delivery space.
“The best thing about drones is that they run on clean energy," he says. But the operational framework needs to be ironed out. “Apart from establishing a strong radio connection with the ground base, we need to figure (out) who gives the go-ahead for a drone to take off, what altitude does the drone fly at, and how do we prevent collisions? These are some key deliberations that are being worked on right now," says Jayaprakash.
So when can you expect your pizza to be delivered by a drone? Kandasamy says 2021 would be a realistic timeline, given that the projects will be implemented phase-wise. “Ultimately, food deliveries with drones won’t be the first step," he says. “There are certain time-critical items that will be first identified for deliveries in the initial stages. Once we prove that this entire ecosystem is safe to operate, all other things can be slowly taken up."