Cover Story

The Day of the Drone

Aditya Iyer is the sports editor at Open
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IN THE LEAD-UP to Uttar Pradesh’s Assembly elections in February 2017, villages bordering the Pilibhit Tiger Reserve simply refused to vote. A young male tiger had killed two villagers on the same day in Pipariya Karam, a settlement whose proximity to the forest ensured it was perennially in the throes of the human-wildlife conflict. And until the tiger—who had by now accounted for five lives in the preceding two months and long declared a man-eater—was either captured or killed, there would be no queues outside Pilibhit’s polling booths.

No issue is a small issue during election season, and the man- eater prowling the swathes of sugarcane in Pipariya Karam fast became the Uttar Pradesh Forest Department’s top priority. In turn, the UPFD made the unprecedented move of calling on the services of a drone team to assist with the operation. “Primarily because a drone is a highly visible way of broadcasting to the local communities that something is being done to catch the tiger,” says Shashank Srinivasan, a field ecologist who was part of the drone unit.

Since drones are essentially mankind’s newest toy, it was used as one. During the Pilibhit operation, the drone served the same purpose as a crib-mobile hovering over a wide-eyed infant. It fascinated and distracted. “ The sugarcane field was simply too dense for the camera mounted on the drone to make any penetration. We could have flown it directly over the tiger’s back and not spotted him,” says Srinivasan. “Nevertheless, it proved to be a very useful tool to capture the attention of the villagers. It kept them busy while the forest guards did their work. This, weirdly, played a big role in the capture of the tiger.”

Just as the angry mob began circling in towards the officers on elephant-back in the sugarcane field, a member of Srinivasan’s team launched a drone from the hood of their vehicle and landed it on his open palm. Within minutes, the vehicle was surrounded and the tiger-tracking elephants and officers were left to do their job. “It was the closest I’ve come to feeling like a movie star,” says Srinivasan. “We did this for about 20 minutes, and then word came that the elephants had pinpointed the square plot of sugarcane the tiger was hiding in.”

Once the tiger had been spotted and cordoned off by the elephants and also the approaching vehicles—a bulldozer and a truck loaded with an iron cage—the drones played a more conventional role. Equipped with cameras in their bellies, they found a point of vantage over the rapidly shrinking circle of tiger territory. Footage sent back to the monitors helped the drone team coordinate over walkie-talkies with mahouts and drivers the final capture of the man-eater of Pilibhit. “This part was expected,” says Srinivasan. “But it was the other, mesmeric avatar that the drones took on that day, that I tend to remember.”

It’s not that Srinivasan was new to the concept of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). Far from it. His company, Technology For Wildlife, helps wildlife organisations understand how they can best leverage modern technology, including drones, to amplify conservation impact. “I live in Delhi and work on drone policy issues, but even I’d only seen them used twice in India before this operation,” he says. “There’s something fascinating about watching these small robots take flight, and so early in the life of this technology, none of us were immune.”

Those were the dark days for drones in India, a time when the Government hadn’t yet stepped in to regulate its use. Less than two years on, however, the shadows are lifting. Today, the UAV market in India is on the verge of realising its true potential. Tomorrow, drones could become an indispensable part of our daily lives, quite like the relationship we share currently with the internet. And soon, in about three years, say analysts, the Indian drone industry will be worth nearly a billion dollars.

FOR THE PILIBHIT operation, Srinivasan had leased the drones from Quidich Innovation Labs—the same company, incidentally, that the Indian Premier League had partnered with this year. The most noticeable difference in the presentation of IPL 2018 was perhaps due a change of guard in the broadcaster. Instead of training cameras on the contours of dancing girls during the breaks in play, as was the precedent, the new coverage raised its roving eyes to the skies; the cameras were now on the curves of Mother Earth herself. To capture aerial shots of a stadium nestled in the Western Ghats in Pune or straddled by the Arabian Sea in Mumbai, Quidich, a big player in India’s emerging drone market, was hired.

Drones could soon become an indispensable part of our daily lives, quite like the relationship we share currently with the Internet

Signing a contract with one of the richest sports events in the world should have been a defining feat in the career of Quidich’s founder, Rahat Kulshreshtha. Just six years ago, he hadn’t seen a drone; now, he was relied upon to equip every IPL stadium with his UAVs, his trained pilots and his technical know-how. But Kulshreshtha knew better than to celebrate prematurely. He knew that before his drones could take off with a flick of a thumb, several pillars and posts had to be moved at the ground level.

In October 2014, the Directorate General for Civil Aviation (DGCA), India’s civil aviation regulator, banned the use of drones by civilians—until further regulations were issued. Civilian drone companies could, however, provide services if they worked directly for a government agency (as was the case in Pilibhit), or received waivers from the authorities concerned and the right stakeholders. Of course, then, to provide services for a tournament played over 10 cities meant many authorities (at both the state and Central levels), many stakeholders and many, many waivers. It left Kulshreshthra in a tailspin, caught in a sticky web of red tape.

“It was a journey, that’s for sure. The number of clearances and the number of people we had to meet to get those clearances, and the number of people those people would make us meet for further clearances was incredible,” says Kulshreshtha, laughing. “We would be on the verge of getting a No Objection Certificate from one ministry, when they’d realise, at the last minute, that in order to get this NOC we needed an NOC from another ministry. So, every time we felt we made a breakthrough, we would wait for a caveat.”

At the Ministry of Home Affairs, it turned out Quidich needed permission from the Ministry of Defence, which in turn needed clearances from the Army, Navy and Air Force. There were okays needed from the local police in each city, from local airports and the Airport Authorities of India. “At the end of the day, every agency wanted the other agency involved to know that it wasn’t just one stakeholder taking the decision,” says Kulshreshtha. By the time he was granted all permissions, Kulshreshtha had a keener understanding of the office spaces in the DGCA, Intelligence Bureau, Minsitry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Defence and ten police stations than the furnishings in his apartment.

And, by the time the first of Quidich’s drones took off in the IPL at the Wankhede Stadium, one-third of the tournament had passed. Any other entrepreneur who had invested equivalent sums of effort, time and money would’ve been left bitter by the experience. But Kulshreshtha is a drone-man. And people in this nascent industry—invariably young and all seemingly wiser than their years—have found a way to be sympathetic rather than cynical. Kulshreshtha, at 29, is no different.

“It takes time to understand any new technology, let alone regulate it,” says Kulshreshtha. “It’s not like the authorities and the ministries and the regulators have a personal vendetta against drones and drone companies. They had reason to believe there were risks involved when flying UAVs and they were simply being cautious, which, strangely enough, I can understand.” Caution, then, could well be the primary reason for DGCA’s ban on drones in 2014, presumably to give itself time to understand the technology before coming up with appropriate regulations. Still, there were heavy implications to an entire industry operating in a grey zone: drone players were always going to lag the global market until the ban was lifted.

“To get on par with the West, and maybe even to get ahead, we needed the Government to get in on the act with us, regulate drone laws, set up a constitution for a technology that is the foreseeable future. That hadn’t happened, so there was always a reason for us as an industry to remain upset,” says Kulshreshthra. “But not anymore.”

In August this year, the Ministry of Civil Aviation finalised India’s first drone policy, which will come into effect from December 1st. After four years of deliberating and planning with industry insiders and the Drone Federation of India, the new regulatory framework allows recreational, personal and commercial use of drones, with a few restrictions on where they can be flown (within the line of sight and not near airports, international borders, coastlines, military installations, etcetera) and when they can be flown (only during daylight). And the only permission needed is a near instantaneous, one-time online registration on a platform called Digital Sky.

When he first heard about the policy, Kulshreshtha was elated. “We have received much encouragement from the Ministry and the regulators, and the great part is they are very happy to listen to entrepreneurs,” he says. “And when the ball is in our court, the conversation changes into how we can build a robust [regulatory regime] that the rest of the world can take a cue from.”

“We saw the gap in the market, and how big the opportunity could be. And that's how we ended up getting into a space that was largely unknown” - Rahat Kulshreshtha, founder, Quidich Innovation Labs

TECHNICALLY SPEAKING, every drone in India is illegal until the midnight of November 30th this year . To register them, the DGCA needed to hire a team to build the corresponding technological framework (now known as Digital Sky) to their regulatory framework. In late 2017, after releasing their first draft of the drone policy, the DGCA touched base with iSPIRT, a Bangalore based think-tank that had conceptualised the underlying infrastructure for Aadhaar registration and also the Unified Payments Interface (UPI).

The iSPIRT team had hoped that the first draft would provide a framework by which, in a safe and secure manner, one could register and fly drones rightaway, with minimal transaction costs—principles that would eventually lead the think-tank to conceive of a strong technological backbone, which in turn would swiftly open up the Indian drone market.

Instead, the first draft of the policy that was released by the DGCA was “lousy, to say the very least”, according to Siddharth Shetty, 22, a fellow at iSPIRT. “It was completely a paper-based process, violating all the principles that would’ve allowed for a mass flourishing of drones. It wasn’t even enforceable,” he says. “There are 12-13 officers in the DGCA, and about 40,000-50,000 drones in what is still considered to be a black market. If each of the existing drones registered with the DGCA on the first day, what are the chances that the paperwork would have been processed in time for the stipulated deadline?”

The iSPIRT team was forced to step in; “We applied the principles and our learnings from Aadhaar, which was to build a registration system that is very easy to enter but difficult to stay,” says Shetty. “Most government systems, by design, are difficult to enter—with a lot of bureaucratic red tape—but easy to stay. This is the wrong way to go about it because such a system makes it difficult for the good guys to enter as well. In the case of Aadhaar it was easy to enter, which is why a billion plus people enrolled so easily, and difficult to stay, for we used a lot of data and analytics in the backend to weed out the wrongdoers. That’s basically what we wanted to apply to registering drones as well.”

A strong technological backbone such as Digital Sky is key to implementing Policy 1.0 from December 1st; and making it work. A system that makes registration hard has a far wider ripple of damage than just hurting the enterprising few in India’s small drone industry. It can stand in the way of saving human lives, as iSPIRT found out. “We believe in financial inclusion, so agricultural income was a very important factor. And our learnings taught us that farmers commit suicide for a sum as little as Rs 1 lakh, even though they are sitting on crop land worth Rs 6 lakh,” Shetty says. “To shift towards a model of protected incomes, where a farmer can insure his crops, we need detailed crop imagery, which can only come from drones or satellites. If drones need to serve this purpose, one needs to be able to fly them instantaneously.”

Digital Sky was developed with such broad field applications in mind. “We realised there are three key functionalities,” says Shetty. “The first is an irrefutable identification of the drone, a standard [by which] every registering drone can be uniquely identified. The second part is NPNT, or, no-permission-no-takeoff, which is self-explanatory. And the third point we took into consideration was to ensure a trusted time log, which will help in the case of a drone breaching a geo-fence or other similar situations.”

On and after December 1st, Indian drone companies will queue up to register their UAVs. But Digital Sky’s success hinges on whether everyone else embraces it as well; from the hobbyist in Hyderabad to the wedding photographers of Punjab, individuals who have taken advantage of weak enforcement and never bothered to seek a waiver during the ban. “In the early days there’s bound to be a lot of messiness, especially in technology people aren’t accustomed to,” says Shetty. “When we launched UPI, even people in the tech industry looked the other way. But as of last month, UPI hit 400 million transactions and it is still very early days. That is the power of building platforms that lowers transaction costs.”

NOT LONG AFTER the date of implementation of India’s first drone policy was announced, a joint report by FICCI and Ernst & Young projected the country’s UAV market at $885.7 million by 2021. Today, only three years prior, drones are still a novelty here. And the industry but a hatchling; so nascent that its rise can be traced by simply following the steps one of its leaders took into it.

Just six summers ago, Kulshreshtha, then a director of Punjabi music videos (the kind that is focused on “pretty girls and pretty cars”), was standing in front of an Audi R8 on the Greater Noida Expressway; and in his awe, he wondered just how he could take aerial shots of the gorgeous automobile. In his quest for an answer, Kulshreshtha would first stumble upon the concept of UAVs and eventually co-found one of the leading companies in the industry, which has done pioneering work “in every market one can possibly imagine using drones in, and even those sectors where one cannot”. “All I really wanted was that shot from the sky of the car for the damned video I was shooting, and that’s when I came across this one guy who was experimenting with drones in India. He quoted an obscene amount of money to lease me one for a two- hour shoot,” he says. “At that time, 2012, he was the only guy in the country doing this, which I found interesting, and of course he could ask any price. I told him that for that kind of money, I could buy my own drone.” And he did.

Purchasing, and later spending copious amounts of time flying his first drone, a DJI Phantom 1 (a quadcopter, or a drone with four rotors), caused a minor upheaval in Kulshreshtha’s professional life. He tossed his directorial career aside, enrolled for a diploma course in college, where, in his roommate Gaurav Mehta, he would find a like-minded ally (who would later found Quidich with him) and the three of them—Mehta, Kulshreshtha and his drone—were hired by an English news channel to provide aerial shots of political campaigns in the lead-up to India’s 2014 General Election.

Rogue drones could be used as tools for terror attacks. But there are also anti-rogue drones in the offing that promise to tackle this menace

“Those drone shots of election rallies were a humongous hit. The feedback from both channel and viewers was tremendous,” he says. “We realised that what we were really doing was replacing helicopters, traditionally used for aerial shots. Hiring a chopper is extremely expensive, and finding pilots who can fly it with a broadcaster’s eye are few and far between. We saw the gap in the market, and how big the opportunity could be if we get into the drone business full time. And that’s how we ended up hedging our bets and getting into a space that was largely unknown.”

The time for such a venture was ripe. “By this point, the drone ecosystem had begun to find its feet globally,” says Kulshreshtha. And today, while Quidich’s drones are used predominantly in the field of broadcast and film-making (shots that you will soon see in the upcoming Bollywood film Brahmastra, for example), their flying machines have also found purpose in projects conducted by the Indian Railways, telecom operators, wildlife researchers such as Srinivasan and in the coal mines of Goa.

“Experimenting in new markets is key to grow this industry, because when it comes to new technology, mirroring global trends is the single biggest mistake one can commit,” says Kulshreshtha. “For example, in the West, drones are widely used for agriculture. Precision agriculture is an entirely new field that has been developed thanks to drone technology. But in India, the size of land parcels ensured that drone technology had little role to play in agriculture; not when the average Indian farmer’s challenge of the hour remains sustenance and not efficiency.”

Rohan Raut, a manufacturer who has handcrafted a UAV with a 2.2 metre wingspan—the widest of all Indian drones— specifically for agricultural purposes, perhaps lives in the hope that Kulshreshtha may not have understood this particular niche. If not, his creation will hang like an albatross-sized error around his neck.

IN OCTOBER 2017, over 30 farmers died in Yavatmal, Maharashtra, due to pesticide poisoning. This affected Raut, 25, on a personal level. He too owned farmland in Dahanu, some 100 km north of Mumbai. And only recently had he seriously begun considering a dive into the drone business and building a machine that could spray industrial-quantities of pesticide. Post-Yavatmal, he was certain that there was a pressing need for his idea. Now, all he had to do was start the market.

“Yavatmal was the tipping point. I found out about the widespread poisoning of farmers in Punjab. There’s a train to Bikaner nicknamed the ‘Cancer Express’, because most passengers who board it in Bhatinda are suffering due to excess use of pesticide,” says Raut. “My research also led me to understand that the government was keen to put an end to the poisoning problem; many states advertised that they were willing to spend money for anyone developing drones for agriculture—specifically for spraying pesticide.”

Raut had access to film drones, he worked in director Anand Gandhi’s production team. “I manufactured camera gear that wasn’t available in the market. This is what I knew best, creating something new with existing technology,” he says. Raut attached a 10-litre payload to the bottom of the film drone and filled it with a water-pesticide solution (200:1, standard ratio). “It wasn’t practical. On an average, an acre has to be sprayed with 140-150 litres of the water-pesticide solution, which means a 5-litre drone has to go around 30 times per acre. The economics didn’t work.”

A bigger drone had to be sought out. “I got down to searching for drones that could carry a significantly heavier load. I even searched the Chinese market, but nothing could carry the load I was looking for,” he says. “This is when I decided I had to manufacture them myself.” The company was named Drone Stark and what he built would fit seamlessly into a Philip K Dick novel.

Raut’s octacopter has eight wings and as many rotors, all units hauling up a 25-litre tank—two-and-a-half times the capacity of the biggest Chinese spraying drone. It weighs 50 kg at full capacity. When this prototype was put on display at India’s first drone festival this October, it was a sight to behold, with a price-tag to startle as well. When it goes into production next month, Raut will sell it for between Rs 10 lakh and Rs 12 lakh a pop.

“Precision spraying ensures the farmer massively reduces costs. On an average, our farmer spends Rs 70,000 on chemicals per year, and about 30 per cent of it is sprayed in excess. This drone instantly saves him Rs 21,000 a year. And, as importantly, it reduces the pesticide residue on the crop,” says Raut.

Raut sees potential customers beyond the obvious bet—farmers with massive landowning. “Pesticide spraying seasons differ for different crops. So, targeting farmers who need to spray at least 20 times a year (grapes, tea, sugarcane) makes more sense than those growing paddy, which needs to be sprayed just thrice a year.”

But aren’t these buyers nervous about investing in a technology that costs as much as an SUV and could potentially fly into a tree? Raut laughs. “During every single demonstration, that is always the first question. So I explain how the drone will be equipped with an obstacle avoidance feature.” There is another FAQ that’s thrown at Raut: Can a rival farmer use his drone to poison my field? “And then I explain the concept of geo-fencing.”

NOT ALL DRONES are designed to respect their geo- fence, or, geographical limitations. In August, two drones were used in an assassination attempt on Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro in Caracas. It could well have been an episode in Black Mirror. Mid-speech, Maduro notices the first of two hectacopters —carrying a payload of explosives—flying overhead. When it detonates, Maduro ducks for cover. Then, the second drone explodes, causing the military parade to flee for their lives.

With the rapid escalation in the use of drones globally, it was but a matter of time before their malefic use grew proportionally. Think about it: a small flying object with the capacity to carry a payload, which poses no threat to the life of an operator with a remote-control and which can’t be detected by most aviation radars available today—how long was it really going to take before it became a convenient tool for terror attacks?

“Like all new technology, in the wrong hands drones too can be programmed to go rogue,” says Mrigank Singh, founder of Sensebird Solutions. “But rogue drones have given birth to a sub-industry. I’m talking about the counter-UAV, or anti-drone, industry.” Mrigank knows the subject better than most; he is getting ready to sell counter-UAV solutions to the Government.

The concept of counter-UAV is based on three fundamental principles. Detection. Identification. Neutralisation. In that order. “To detect a drone, a strong policy helps,” says Mrigank. “But policies are for cooperative drones who are willing to identify themselves on detection. This doesn’t hold true for rogues. And to keep them in check, a full stack of new technology exists today.”

Most anti-drone technologies have mushroomed in the last couple of years. Take Static Starring Radars, which put to shame Primary Surveillance Radars—installed in most airports around the world—when it comes to detecting a drone. But a vastly superior method that even radar-detection is a science called radiogoniometry, he says. “It triangulates a signal and can pinpoint the location of the operator. Compared to radars, radiogoniometry is cost effective, and unlike radars, this process can help with identification and neutralisation as well.” But there are drawbacks. Radiogoniometry is of no use if the drone has a preloaded flight plan.

“There is no silver bullet for counter- UAV solutions yet,” Mrigank says. “Take neutralising a rogue drone. There are ways today to hard-kill your target drone by bursting a projectile in its vicinity or with a net- capture. And there are soft-kill methods, such as hacking and stealing its live-feed, or by using a not-so-subtle jammer gun. The point is, as drones get better and rogue drones get better, so will we.”