Delivery startups Dunzo, Swiggy and Zomato, budget airline SpiceJet and Reliance-backed drone startup Asteria Aerospace are among 13 consortia that have received approvals to test fly beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) drones.
India’s civil aviation regulator has given the go-ahead a little over a year after the country announced plans to allow experimental long-range drone flights before framing a policy for the sector.
The tests, which will see the unmanned vehicles either carry payloads or survey vast swathes of land, are likely to begin in the first week of July.
This will mark the first steps in India’s plan to develop local drone-based services capabilities, even as it plays catch up with China and the United States.
“We will start flying from the first week of July and plan to clock around 120 hours of flights in two and a half months,” said Nagendran Kandasamy, founder and director of Throttle Aerospace, which received approval from the Directorate-General of Civil Aviation in March along with Dunzo.
While the company initially planned to begin tests much sooner, the Covid-19 virus outbreak induced lockdown pushed back its plans, Kandasamy said.
The disruption caused by the pandemic also delayed the DGCA’s approval to end-May for 11 of the 13 consortia that were shortlisted.
The private industry consortia will need to clock at least 100 hours of flight time in airspace designated by the Airports Authority of India, by September 30.
The logs will need to be submitted to the DGCA, which is hoping to use data from the experiments to frame a policy for BVLOS drones before year-end.
“Once they (the consortia) complete their flights and submit their logs, then we can really understand what will need to be the specifications required for BVLOS,” said a senior government official who did not want to be named. “Our plan was to have the draft policy out by August, but that got pushed because of the Covid-19 pandemic.”
India is looking at these experiments as a way of fast tracking its policy and preparing the local industry for a major push into the drone services segment globally, multiple government officials and industry participants told ET.
Unlike other forms of aviation, drones are cheap to develop and the bulk of their value is in moving away from hardware into services.
Another government official working closely on India’s drone master plan said drones do not require the state to sink billions of dollars into R&D unlike other emerging technologies such as Artificial Intelligence and quantum computing.
India’s strengths in software, geospatial imaging and services will make it the ideal provider of services atop drones, he added.
“Our information technology services giants already work with the world’s biggest power generators, electricity transmission companies, oil pipeline companies and offer them end-to-end services to manage their assets. Why can’t we now out of India offer to manage their drone fleets which will reduce their maintenance costs by hundreds and thousands of crores?”
For now, the 13 experimental operations are largely split into drones doing surveillance and delivery.
For Dunzo, Swiggy (which has partnered with Washington-based ANRA Technologies) and Zomato (which is affiliated with the Clearsky Flight Consortium, according to sources), it is about getting packages delivered seamlessly to consumer doorsteps via drones.
For others like Nandan Nilekani-backed ShopX, its tests will focus on using drones for B2B logistics. For Throttle Aerospace, it is about moving medical supplies such as vaccines into remote areas, and ultimately even transporting live organs via drones from one hospital rooftop to another.
However, India still has a long way to go.
A single window clearance for owners and operators to register their drones saw over 20,000 entries earlier this year. That is still a far cry from the 400,000-odd commercial drones and over 1.2 million recreational drones in the United States.