FOR MOST people, drones are associated with invisible flying machines that fire missiles at targets on the ground along the terrorist-infested border between Pakistan and Afghanistan or war zones like Iraq and Syria. These are called unmanned aerial combat vehicles (UACVs). India uses unarmed drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), for surveillance on its borders with Pakistan and, of late, such remotely-piloted aircraft have started to make their presence felt in the country, and in a very public way.
During the recent riots in the national capital’s Tirlokpuri area, the Delhi Police employed two drones to relay live visuals of rooftops and sensitive areas. Photographs of the drones hovering above roads were splashed across newspapers the next day. The Delhi Police hired the drones from a private company in Noida. Other police forces are increasingly using drone technology wherever large crowds gather, or at political rallies, religious gatherings and even marathons.
The true value of a civilian UAV is that it can send back live video feed of any area it is permitted to fly in with the help of multiple high-resolution cameras mounted on the machine. There is, of course, another use—to deliver parcels or objects. Amazon created a stir when it announced plans to deliver packets by drones, while DHL has taken the lead in announcing a regular drone delivery service for the first time—nine months after it launched its ‘parcelcopter’ research project in December 2013. The service will use an autonomous quadcopter to deliver small parcels to the German island of Juist, a sandbar island 12 km into the North Sea from the German coast, inhabited by 2,000 people. Deliveries will include medication and other goods that might be ‘urgently needed’.
The potential of drones is limitless mainly because of their flexible design and the way they work. Drones that the US Army uses to launch strikes against targets resemble small fighter jets. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg plans on developing large, inexpensive, solar-powered drones the size of jumbo jets that will be able to fly for years at a time and facilitate broadband connectivity over large swathes of the world. Facebook is looking to launch a pilot project in Seemandhra, among other states.
On some online sites in India, one can buy a UAV that resembles a toy. The ones used by the Delhi Police are of the regulation size for civilian use and have extended camera-mounted legs.
“The application of these UAVs is immense and we are looking into the matter of whether integrating them in the force will be of any help,” says Rajat Bhagat, the official spokesperson of Delhi Police. Drones have already proved their usefulness in India, as the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) used them after the Uttarakhand floods last year to help rescue operations in inaccessible places. The 5th Battalion of the National Disaster Relief Force (NDRF) in Pune already possesses an in-house drone.
“Drones have proved their utility after the Uttarakhand floods and also during the time when students from Hyderabad drowned in the Beas river in Himachal Pradesh, among others,” says Shashidhar Reddy, former vice-chairman of NDMA. “The NDMA has just started using a drone called Netra, which you may have seen in the movie 3 Idiots, but we plan to integrate it further in all the battalions of the NDRF,” adds Reddy.
Aakash Sinha, a Delhi-based robotics engineer, is witness to the growing popularity of UAVs in India. Sinha, who develops robots for land, sky and water, has been engaged in developing customised drones for individuals, universities, defence forces and the industry for the past one-and-a-half years. “People are fascinated by the vast possibilities of tasks that drones can perform,” says Sinha. In the past one-and-a-half years, Sinha’s firm, Omnipresent Robot Tech, has developed and delivered about 20 drones to various individuals and organisations, including the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). Sinha is in talks with the Mumbai international airport, which wishes to use a drone for welcoming guests. At the Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh, drones are used to keep an eye on poachers.
Amber Dubey, partner and India head (aerospace and defence), KPMG, says, “The useful aspects of civilian drones are well-known—agriculture, wildlife conservation, search and rescue, aerial photography, perimeter security, tracking of natural disasters, remote monitoring of utilities such as transmission towers, pipelines, highways, railways, etc, and, lately, doorstep delivery of products.”
But the Indian government is yet to draft specific policies on drones. In a report by Scroll.in, a digital daily of political and cultural news in India, Prabhat Kumar, the director general of the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), was quoted as saying, “We are looking at regulations being developed in other countries for reference.”
The increased dealing in drones has been urging the government to instate legislation and regulations to make the commercial use of drones legal and licensed, like for guns, which regulate and make them traceable and accountable.
Quidich, an NCR-based aerial photography and video services company, which uses drones to shoot aerial videos, collaborated with the news channel Headlines Today during the national assembly election season to aerially shoot panoramic views of the crowds gathered at constituencies such as Varanasi, Muzaffarnagar, Vadnagar and Amethi. When asked about permits and permissions, Quidich’s CEO, Rahat Kulshreshtha, says, “Our agreement clearly states to the client that he or she needs to acquire the permission for us to shoot.” Film producers are increasingly using drones to shoot visuals from a height or various angles.
In the US, courts have been directing the Federal Aviation Administration to allow companies and individuals to fly drones, which is likely to pave the way for Amazon’s ‘prime air’ delivery system to become a reality. Already, drones are in use for counting sea lions in Alaska, US, monitoring drug trafficking across borders and conducting weather and environmental research. In fact, 327 drones have already been licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration to fly over the US soil.
As per Mario Mairena, government relations manager, Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International in the US, “Farmers want to use UAVs for crop dusting and disease detection, while oil and gas companies want to use them to inspect rigs and pipelines. Hollywood, too, wants to get its hands on unmanned aircraft to capture innovative camera shots and save money on manned aircraft costs.”
Meanwhile, nearly a dozen-odd startups in India are quietly assembling hundreds of drones of different shapes and sizes. And if enthusiasts are to be believed, there are as many drones in the possession of people, for whom flying them is a hobby. Drones are being sold by e-retailers like Flipkart and Snapdeal for less than R40,000 apiece. A recent article in The Guardian featured an engineer-artist team who created Flone, an easily constructed drone whose movements can be controlled through an intuitive smartphone app similar to videogame controls.
Dronestagram is a French website that provides a space for drone enthusiasts to share their images and videos. Recently, the website hosted pictures showing sites hit in US drone attacks, adding to the pressure for greater transparency from Washington.
Civilian drones are vastly different from military ones. The Indian Army uses three models—Nishant, Searcher MK2 and Heron—for border surveillance. Nishant has been made by the DRDO, while the other two have been bought from Israel. As per a news article published in Pakistan Today, a Pakistani daily newspaper, “The Northern Command of the Indian Army has recently purchased 49 miniature unmanned aerial vehicles to patrol its border region with China and Pakistan. The Indian Army will deploy the drones to carry out its reconnaissance mission over its disputed border areas after 50 soldiers from China’s People’s Liberation Army were found setting up camp in the remote region of eastern Ladakh.” Drones are the true ‘game changers’ in India’s territorial dispute with China, the paper adds.
In India, lack of laws and strict security procedures are a huge handicap for the use of civilian drones. In Mumbai, a restaurant recently hired a drone to deliver a pizza to a customer on the balcony of a high-rise apartment. The pizza was delivered—much faster and at less cost than a normal motorcycle-based delivery—but the next day, the police demanded an explanation for its use without permission. Civilian drones are required to fly at a certain height to avoid any interference with civilian air traffic. They cannot overfly sensitive zones, defence establishments, or violate security zones in VIP areas, government buildings or installations. Other countries are still finding out ways to get around existing laws and, with the potential that exists, it might not be long before we can expect a flying pizza to arrive on our balcony as well.