More than 75 drone start-ups participated in a two-day drone festival unveiled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday. Global UAV player ideaForge’s co-founder and CEO Ankit Mehta comments on the government’s push for drones.
There have been several policy announcements in the past 18 months on drones — from liberalised rules to PLI schemes and the import ban. What do you make of them?
Prior to the pandemic, this industry was a poorly treated step-child as far as policies were concerned.
We had a very challenging policy that also didn’t give any exemptions, which changed when the pandemic happened. Suddenly, the government started giving us exemptions that started to unlock the sector. Though the government revised the drone rules, these were worse than before, and we demanded a relook. As a result, we have rules that are easy to understand and comply with.
Earlier, drones were a good-to-have technology, but during the pandemic it was difficult to deploy manpower for various tasks for fear of exposure, and there were wars which elevated the stark need for drones.
Why was the export ban announced in February, needed?
Export of drones is restricted because we are signatories of the Wassenaar Arrangement, which China has not signed. As a result, they are able to export to everyone in the world, but everyone who is a signatory has an obligation to prevent export and proliferation of this technology. So, we have to face an uneven commercial environment for our manufacturers.
You are also a member of the FICCI task force on drones. What are your demands from the government?
We are proud that a lot of our suggestions were taken into account by the government to bring about policy changes such as the PLI scheme, as well as the need for liberalising drone rules. But one bastion that needs to be conquered is our export approach. It takes anytime between 45 days and six months to get an approval. There is no predictability in the process, which is a hurdle for us.
What was the impact of the semiconductor supply chain issue in the past two years?
The impact was huge even for the low volumes the industry was handling in India because everything was wiped out. So, we have had to re-engineer, revalidate and make sure that we could operate.
So, while we could not let the customer timelines slip, it was obviously a lot of pain for us to rebuild the things we had already worked on. Some of these supply chain issues still exist, but they have tapered down.
What are the areas the Indian drone industry excels in, and where does it still have some ground to cover?
Our industry excels in building systems that can operate in our environmental conditions, which are some of the harshest — we have high altitude operations at heights that don’t exist anywhere else, then we have operations in deserts, marshy areas, marine environments. We build systems that work here, which means they are pretty much likely to work everywhere else in the world as well.
Second piece we are good at is performance, which is much higher than the global expectation.
Where we can improve is automation, as the global expectation is much higher. We also need to be able to have more use cases. For example, commercial delivery through drones hasn’t yet taken off in India, which we have seen in countries like Australia.
Apart from the use of drones in agriculture or mapping, there is also interest from law and order agencies for buying them for surveillance. But how do you address privacy concerns? Does that ever come up in discussions?
So, people are also concerned about use of drones for carrying munitions, but why do people have munitions in the first place. A drone is just a vector.
Privacy is a very important concern, but it is not the drone that is creating the problem.