Recreational or commercial use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), popularly known as drones, is banned in India. Despite that, the enthusiasm surrounding these remote-controlled flying machines has steadily been on the rise. The fact that a mere publicity stunt by a Mumbai-based pizza chain went viral on social media stands testimony to this. The fake video, which shows a GPS-enabled drone delivering a pizza to an expectant customer three kilometres away, caught the high-flying imagination of geeks across the country. However, it may also just be a matter of time before drone-delivery actually catches on - the earlier the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) takes a call on the licensing nitty-gritty for drones, the merrier.
"Drones are increasingly becoming a more relevant and popular consumer product, partly due to its capabilities and partly as an easy-touse, 'out-of-the-box' flying machine with minimal setup. It can be a useful tool to photographing locations while travelling or even taking a snapshot of your backyard from a different angle," says Chinmoy Lad, Public Relations Specialist of drone maker DJI.
Undoubtedly, this is the next big technology innovation everyone is talking about and, in spite of the DGCA ban, drones are flying off shelves of both offline and online retailers. The Flyer's Bay X-Drone Evoluiton 2.4GHz with a mounted camera is a popular product that comes for around Rs 4,000. Parrot's AR.Drone 2.0 Quadricopter is yet another favourite with the Indian consumer due to the 720p highdefinition live video streaming capabilities of the product. The device works with iPod Touch, iPhone, iPad and Android devices, and is priced at Rs 39,990.
A few years ago, DJI-manufactured drones were a craze. The company had launched lightweight and easy-to-fly four-propeller helicopters that could shoot stable aerial videos. The products instantly became popular with hobbyists, filmmakers and even journalists, though the price tag was in the range of Rs 70,000 to a few lakhs. Drones are also in use by industries such as agriculture, viticulture, fire-fighting and filmmaking, apart from the security establishment, including the police, armed forces and intelligence network.
Regulatory intervention following the popularity and sudden rise in the use of drones among the masses was necessary primarily due to security threats and air safety issues. Therefore, the DGCA's decision to ban drones in May 2014 did not come as a surprise for security experts. "The DGCA is in the process of formulating regulations for certification and operation for use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) in the Indian civil airspace. Till such regulations are issued, no non-government agency, organisation, or an individual will launch a UAS in Indian civil airspace for any purpose whatsoever," the DGCA said in a notice at the time.
Captain Shakti Lumba, former Head of Operation at IndiGo and Alliance Air, explains: "The regulations will be based on International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) standards and recommended practices. Till the time the ICAO comes out with recommendations, one requires permission from the Airports Authority of India, Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Home Affairs, other 'concerned' security agencies, apart from the DGCA for civil operation of UAVs." However, the long wait for the DGCA to issue guidelines has not helped either, as drones have become a common sight despite the ban and, many feel, it could result in a serious security breach.
May Day signals from enthusiasts and industries across the spectrum are also growing louder by the day as the possibilities of commercial use of drones are endless. "Drones make data collection a much faster process, reducing risks to human life and are accurate, efficient and cost-effective. With the technology growing, it will be possible to carry different kinds of payloads on UAVs and collect different kinds of data that can assist in decision-making in various industries. Supply chain is another field of application," says Shinil Shekhar, one of the co-founders of Airpix, a company which develops UAV systems to provide aerial data solutions.
There are various kinds of drones ranging from quadcopters to fixed wing planes. The images and videos captured are of high resolution and accurate, and is expected to contribute in effective decision-making. For instance, real estate developers are using drones to give their buyers a real look and feel of what the apartment would look like, providing them with construction updates and much more. They also come handy to check for any lapses and damages in construction, and helps save both time and money.
DJI drones are also popular with wedding photographers in India. They are equipped with GoPro Hero4 Black and are preferred over cranes. By 2016, drones will incorporate 4k video technology too. Filmmakers are opting for drones as it would cost less than helicopters for capturing aerial shots. E-commerce and courier companies, such as Amazon and DHL, are also keen to use drones to deliver light-weight products. Shekhar of Airpix says drones are getting more acceptable in India. "In the past, drones were thought of just as a military weapon, but of late, with more appearances of UAVs in movies, TV ads and events, the perception is changing. People in the corporate world too realise that the potential is immense and they are exploring for more applications and welcoming UAVs to make their business decisions," he says.
But until the DGCA comes up with regulations, drones won't take off. Gerald Van Hoy, Senior Research Analyst at Gartner, says not much thought was put into the ban on drones. "I think there is a lot of pressure on the DGCA to come up with regulations. The problem is they cannot have a "quick-fix" or adopt another country's regulations," he says. "They will have to come up with a solution in the Indian context, else it would kill the drone business."