What lies beyond the horizon: Digital Sky & the future of drones in India

Drones have been around for a long time, going back as far as World War II. For most of their history, they were considered part of the military arsenal and developed and deployed almost exclusively by the military.

However, the past decade has seen a tremendous amount of research and development in the area of using drones for civilian purposes. This has led industry experts to predict that drones will be disrupting some of the mainstay industries of the global economy such as logistics, transportation, mining, construction and agriculture to name a few. Analysts estimate a $100 billion market opportunity for drones in the coming few years  [1]. In spite of the overwhelming evidence in favour of the value created by drones, it has taken quite a few years for the drone industry to take off in a commercial sense globally.

The main reason for this has been the regulatory challenges around what is allowed to fly in the air and where is it allowed to fly. A common theme around the world is the unconventional challenges that old governmental structures have to face as they try to understand and regulate new technologies. Hence the default approach so far for governments has been reactionary caution as they try to control what are, essentially, flying robots in the sky.

However, with electronic costs coming down, the hardware becoming more accessible and the software interpreting data becomes more powerful a number of humanitarian, civilian and industrial application have emerged and as governments across the world are realizing the potential of drones, we are starting to see the first version of regulations being drafted and adopted across the globe.[2]

Closer home India has a relatively adverse approach to drones or more lackadaisical rather. [3]

But as India continues to drive to become a more technology-oriented economy the role of drones in the worlds fastest growing economy and the potential benefits it can bring are hard to ignore.[4]

However, India’s approach to drone regulations cannot be that of other major economies that have the luxury of friendly neighbours and a large network of monitoring apparatus, India has had to take an approach that has to be novel and robust. Something that balances the security landscape while also being designed to allow maximum utilization of the potential that drones offer. Out of this need to both regulate secure how and where a drone can fly and keep multi-ministerial stakeholder interests accounted for was born the Digital Sky, India’s foundational framework for all things drones.

What is the Digital Sky and how does it work?

What the Digital Sky accomplishes beautifully is to fill the institutional void that needs to be collectively fulfilled by so many institutions and make it easier for the industry and consumers to interface with the government legally through one platform. Permission to fly drone no longer requires a 90-day intimation with an arbitrary number of NOCs to be approved by umpteen number of ministerial bodies at the central and federal level. The industry and the public now know one place to interact with in order to register their drone, get recognised as a certified operator and apply for permissions and all concerned government agencies ensure their overarching interests do not interfere with the large-scale adoption of drones.  

There are crucial components required for the Digital Sky concept to work, the most central being that drone operators should not be able to fly drones if they are not approved by the government. To accomplish this the Drone 1.0 regulations revolve around the concept of No-Permission-No-Takeoff (NPNT).

Our maven Tanuj Bhojwani explaining NPNT at the DigitalSky RoundTable on 4 Dec 2018 in Bengaluru

What this implies is that unless a drone has got valid permission for a particular flight through tamper-proof digitally signed permission tokens, it will not be able to take off. The Digital Sky is the platform to automate the processing of these permission tokens as they flow in from different parts of the country without overwhelming the authorities through a flight information management system (one of only three countries to build this nationally after China and the USA). In order for this vision to come true, there will be an enormous change in the way drones are manufactured and operated. Entire new industry verticals around getting existing drones compliant, developing interfaces that interact with the Digital Sky platform and making applications for India’s needs will develop. Hence this begs the question.

How are the current state of the industry are changing with 1.0 regulations

Until the introduction of the regulations companies especially in the UAV operations were doing non-restricted work and end up becoming the jack-of-all-trades. Companies in the manufacturing domain were unclear of who is their target customer and what they needed to build. All the companies in this domain were working with no clarity on the safety and permissions.

With the introduction of the Drone Policy 1.0, there is a buzz which has been created and efforts are being made to understand the regulations by all the entities who are set to gain from it. They understand that there will be a new aspect that needs to cater to i.e. the sense of accountability.

For manufacturer’s The NP-NT mandate will be the most immediate requirement, the most common route to implement the mandate will be through changes to existing firmware architecture. The changes themselves are being driven by open source initiatives with various operators, system integrators and manufacturers contributing to the shift to NP-NT for all major drone platforms in the country. The Digital Sky has inadvertently catalysed the first industry-wide initiative to bring together all members of the ecosystem. Other requirements such as ETA bring in much-needed standardisation in the hardware space, this allows benchmarking of products, easier availability of information about the standards to look out for end users.

For operators, a massive increase in the volume of business is expected as they can now focus on getting certified drones into the air, and not so much on getting approvals. The Digital Sky brings in much-needed certainty and predictability into an industry that will be focused on balancing demand and supply of drone-related operations in a market that has a huge need for drones and their data but limited expertise to acquire and process it. This also puts onus an industry to become security and privacy conscious and insurance agencies will play an important role in this regard. It will also immensely help in changing the thought process of the companies providing services and their customers. Customers will start understanding that they also need to have a defined plan, process and execution instead of a haphazard existing process of execution.

How industry/playground will change over the coming years?

With the introduction on the regulations and a platform like Digital sky enabling the ease of doing business for the companies who are serious stakeholders in this domain, there is no limit to what developments will occur in the coming years. It opens up possibilities for utilization of Drone and its related technologies in Agriculture, Medical, Energy and Infrastructure and transportation.

The existing players will become more mature and more focused. They will understand that with regulations in place a more focused approach is the key to scale. They will look at opportunities to compete with the global market also as the solutions that are developed around the Drone Regulations 1.0 and 2.0 will be key factors that contribute to the Indian ecosystem to becoming a global standard to test, adapt and innovate drone applications and management.

What are the opportunities? What does that mean for the current and new players?

UAV/ Drones as a business was a far-fetched thought for many entrepreneurs and has been a struggling industry in the past in India. Going forward it is guaranteed that it will be one of the biggest markets in the world for UAV as a business. What the regulations and Digital Sky platform will enable is a new levelled playground ground for the UAV companies to initiate good scalable business models both existing and the ones entering new to the sector.

The existing companies with the right resources can now plan to scale their operations and also have the added advantage of doing work for the private sector in India. Due to the restrictive method of operations adapted previously the solutions to private agencies was unavailable. Now going forward the companies will shift their focus from being a B2G entity to a B2B entity. Many new businesses for UAV air traffic management, surveillance, AI and ML-based UAV solutions and deliveries will emerge out of India with technology specific to India.

The blog is co-authored by Anurag A Joshi from INDrone Aero systems, Abhiroop Bhatnagar from Algopixel Technologies and Gokul Kumaravelu from Skylark Drones

My iSPIRT Experience, A Learning Of A Lifetime By Praveen Hari

In 2016, the company I co-founded, Thinkflow, went through a liquidity event. It was a great outcome for all and I was thinking of the next move. It was natural for me to think of starting again. I was wiser, had seed capital and only had to find a problem attractive enough. It looked like I was going down that path and would build another software product company for the global market.

Something interesting was happening in India at that same time. All the global giants were investing in or had invested in companies that were building for India. Venture funds like Softbank, DST Global, Naspers were making bold bets in the Indian consumer space. A lot of digitization was also happening in India. UPI was in the initial release phase (Flipkart had already committed to back PhonePe, when it was just Sameer and Rahul’s idea), the GST bill was tabled in Parliament, a system to track real-time movement of goods was being discussed. It was really a lot of action and if venture investments were any indication, it was the validation of the India story.

In a meeting with Sharad, for the first time, I understood the true potential of the digital stack (now called the IndiaStack) that was taking shape then. While the stack was not fully ready for all the use cases that we covered in the meeting, the vision to solve some of the hardest problems India was facing through technology was fascinating. That vision combined with the kind of commitment the Open API team (it is now called the IndiaStack team) put in is unparalleled in my experience

I left the meeting with a question from Sharad.  “Do you want to do a 2-year MBA that pays you a small stipend?”. I thought about it and said ‘yes’. Amongst all the challenges, unlocking credit for small businesses resonated with me. Having faced the consequences of not having access to timely credit during my Thinkflow days, I could identify with this problem and ended up doing work around data-driven and cash-flow lending. We make a number of decisions in a lifetime but a few handfuls of them are life-changing. And my decision to work with iSPIRT and to focus on Flow-based lending has been a life-changing one.

Over the last 30 months, I worked towards Improving efficiencies in the loan delivery and collections cycle so we could bring a lot more borrowers to the formal system. As an iSPIRTer, I had the privilege of working with CEOs of banks, NBFCs and Small Finance banks to design new loan products. We were working on new ways to use data to underwrite small loans for new-to-credit businesses. I was guiding them on how to use technology to deliver credit at lower costs and worked alongside them to devise new strategies to build new workflows around origination, disbursement, collections, et al.

The iSPIRT stint has been a rewarding one. iSPIRT is all about putting country first and solving country scale problems. Core values such as this and others like setting up fellow volunteers for success were totally unheard of to me in the modern day workplace. iSPIRT is a safe space for any volunteer who is passionate about changing India. The institution has been about investing in the success of its fellows –  I had the benefit of learning from the wisdom of people like Nandan Nilekani, Sharad Sharma, Pramod Varma, Sanjay Jain. My colleagues are A-players and I had the opportunity to learn from and work alongside Meghana Reddyreddy, Nikhil Kumar, Venkatesh Hariharan, Jai Shankar, Tanuj Bhojwani, Siddharth Shetty and Karthik

As I prepare to roll-off my responsibilities at iSPIRT, I want to express my gratitude and a special thanks to Sharad Sharma for giving me this opportunity. He is a great guide and has been a great mentor for me. Thank you for being there for me when I needed you. It has been a great experience working with you and the team and my learnings here are my core strength as I move on to solving for India through my next venture.