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From sanitising containment zones and fighting locusts, to delivering food, here's how drones are springing into action

Between COVID-19 and swarms of locusts that found their way into India, the drones have emerged winners.

“The situation has put us in the forefront and not just spiked the interest of the general public but stakeholders too,” says Smit Shah of the Drone Federation of India, a non-Government, not-for-profit, industry-led body that promotes and strives towards building a safer and scalable unmanned aviation industry.

Recent work put in by these electronic flying devices — in surveillance, to check if people are adhering to lockdown, as well as disinfecting and sanitising — has brought them visibility. In fact, the pandemic and pestilence have pushed this sector to further innovate.

Senthil Kumar, professor and director, Dr Kalam Advanced UAV Research Centre, MIT, Anna University, is now working on flying a swarm of 20 drones with a single operator. “In the case of disinfecting during the pandemic, if you programme the swarm, then each drone can spread out to different streets and get the job done at the same time,” explains Kumar.

He adds that drones are useful in fighting locusts, with pesticides. “If lakhs of locusts come in, one drone may not be enough. But a swarm can effectively fight them.”

Driving innovation

Drones are primarily battery-operated, but Kumar designed a dual-powered drone (petrol and battery-operated) in 2018. This year, these hybrid drones were deployed, for the first time, to battle locusts in Rajasthan. A few were also used by the Tamil Nadu Police, on a trial basis, for surveillance and making announcements in containment zones.

Battery-powered drones are not suitable for bigger payloads: in the case of tackling locusts they need to carry 15 litres of pesticides, says Kumar. Then there are safety issues: if the battery blasts when the drone is mid air, it will crash.

From sanitising containment zones and fighting locusts, to delivering food, here's how drones are springing into action

“Keeping these factors in mind, we designed these hybrid drones, after researching for five years,” he adds. These machines carry 16 to 18 litres of pesticide for spraying. Plus, each can hold three-and-a-half litres of petrol and the overall weight of the drone at full capacity is 45 kilograms. It can fly for 40 minutes.

In another positive development, the Ministry of Civil Aviation has recently sanctioned engine-operated drones to fly at night. This permission is specifically to deal with locusts. “In Bikaner (Rajasthan) our three drones are working at night, spraying chemicals to tackle locusts,” says Kumar, who has 50-plus drones.

“The Ministry of Civil Aviation has been working effectively during this COVID-19 period. They have taken a lot of effort with regard to drones and this will result in many players coming into this segment,” says Kumar, adding, “Big industries will join too, especially if the agriculture field is open. It will create a lot of employment opportunity.”

Lately, the involvement of the drones in relief work, says Smit, has made securing permissions from the Government a little easier. A case in point is the GARUD portal (Government Authorisation for Relief Using Drones) that was recently set up to fast track large scale, quick permissions for COVID-19-related drone operations, says Smit. He also lists the DigitalSky Platform — by the Ministry of Civil Aviation — a single window clearance platform for all drone related registration, permission and other regulatory services.

Branching out

It has been established that drones can be used for a lot more than just shooting weddings and films. “Today, we have 38 different solutions that they offer. These include mosquito repellents, locusts, mapping, electricity wire survey, sanitisation...” says Agnishwar Jayaprakash who started Chennai-based Garuda Aerospace in 2015.

From sanitising containment zones and fighting locusts, to delivering food, here's how drones are springing into action

His company is now almost a veteran in the sanitisation scene. It has worked in around 16 cities across India, spraying disinfectants and covered nearly 25,000 acres.

“We began in March, with the Health Ministry of Tamil Nadu giving us an order for the Rajiv Gandhi Government Hospital in Chennai,” says Agnishwar, whose drones then subsequently worked in Varanasi, Bhopal, Chandigarh, Rourkela, Ranchi, Kurnool in Andhra Pradesh, Nirmal in Telangana, and Mumbai.

“Now the Government understands that automation and drone technology can serve as replacement for on-ground health and sanitation workers,” says Agni, whose company was also roped in to tackle locusts by the Department of Agriculture in Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.

“We were one of the first responders to use this technology to kill locusts,” Agnishwar says, explaining that they have two methods. One is to spray a night before the locusts arrive and the second is to target them from above when they are foraging. “We have a 70-75% hit ratio.” he adds. These drones, each weighing 25 kilograms, carry 15 to 20 kilograms of liquid solution provided by the Government.

Looking forward, Agnishwar’s company has now developed a drone delivery platform for food and e-commerce. It’s called IPPO (meaning ‘now’ in Tamil) and is in talks with service providers like Zomato, Flipkart and Amazon among others.

“Whenever the Government regulations open up (air traffic rules for drones), we will be the first in the country to do this,” he says. With this service, even a 20-kilometre radius can be covered in 15 minutes. He also plans to have his own cloud kitchens.

With increasing dependence on drones, Agnishwar says, “Today, the drone industry is where the e-commerce industry was in 2009. Over the next couple of years, we will grow.”

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Printable version | Oct 21, 2021 6:06:27 PM |

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