Karthikeyan has been going to work every day despite the lockdown. A drone pilot with Chennai startup Garuda Aerospace for the past three years, Karthikeyan, 22, who uses only one name, spends most of his day outside, wearing a PPE and flying drones to help sanitiSe hospitals and crowded localities.
“Sometimes it can be difficult because we have to sanitise about a square kilometre in a limited time, and visibility is less. But more challenging are the days when I have to sanitise the interiors of a hospital,” says Karthikeyan, explaining that the loss of GPS connectivity inside a building can make drones unstable.
Like Garuda, many drone companies have teamed up with local police and government amid the covid-19 crisis to assist in sanitisation, crowd control and surveillance and, in the process, have been witnessing an increase in business.
“The idea for drones in India has been extreme, till a few years ago. They were either the high standard drones used by the defence forces, or the ones which were being used for event photography. But the scene has changed now and while there are regulations, a lot can be done in the space allowed,” says Jayaprakash, 29, founder of Garuda Aerospace.
The adoption was slow by the government, believes Jayaprakash. “Any innovation has inertia when it comes to acceptance. Drones had a lot of stigma of being used for detrimental purposes. But just with any other novel innovation, good comes out during a crisis. And now the adoption and acceptance is faster,” he adds.
Jayapakash designed their first agriculture drone in 2016. The same drone, but with altered sprayers to suit the sanitisation material (which has a different viscosity compared to pesticides) is now being used in sanitation drives across 10 states. It helped that the team had already approached the health minister of Tamil Nadu for an initial demonstration before the Janata curfew in March. After the demonstration, they were allowed to carry out sanitation drives, starting with the Rajiv Gandhi Government General Hospital in Chennai.
The Big Task
Drones are not easy devices to handle. The delivery of drones as well as approvals can take time. “You need to have an inventory of at least five-six drones to be able to help out in any situation. And these are expensive devices, costing around $15,000 a piece,” says Rishabh Gupta, 24, co-founder of Redwing Aerospace Labs, a Bengaluru-based drone delivery startup. Redwing has earlier helped deliver medicines and vaccines through drones in 2019 during the polio outbreak in Papua New Guinea. Gupta believes in the current scenario too, drones can help in surveillance and monitoring.
When drones had come in, they were challenging, believes Sanjay Sharma, vice-president and business head at Cyient Solutions and Systems. “But now they come with auto stabilizers. That said, all our pilots have been trained not just on how to handle the drones, but also basic maintenance, how to plan flight missions and handling the inventory,” says Sharma. Cyient has been working with, and has also trained, the Hyderabad Police to use their drones for supervision, crowd control and announcements.
“Police cannot be everywhere. Remote monitoring, therefore, becomes necessary, especially in red zones. When they suspect violations, they inform us, we send out the drone depending on the request and post the flight, we send our feed to the local police, which they can then analyse,” explains Naveen Goddala, team lead for innovation and intellectual property at Cyient.
Goddala, 35, handles field operations for drone deployment and accompanies the drone pilots during monitoring. Cyient flies in two slots everyday – from 8-11:30am, and 4-7pm. Some of the areas that are especially congested have seen multiple instances of drone patrolling in a day. These high-end drones (different from the ones used by defence forces in high altitude areas for surveillance) have been fitted with radiometric thermal imaging sensor for monitoring people’s movement on one side, and a megaphone speaker on the other side. The speakers help broadcast real-time and pre-recorded messages through handheld devices, to help control the crowd and disseminate information.
With challenges come opportunities as well. As awareness grows, drone companies have been getting offers. Both government and private orders have gone up for Garuda Aerospace. Revenue has jumped 270% to $62,000 in the last month alone. This, in spite of the company doing it for 60% of their usual price. Cyient, however, has been helping the government pro-bono.
Be it Cyient or Garuda, most people have had to figure out things as they go. “We have had to pull all-nighters trying to figure out logistics, such as how do we transport our batteries and emergency equipment on air cargo, since they are flammable. But through it all, we have led from the front because when you have the technological capability, you must stand up and do something to help,” says Jayaprakash.
The article was first published on livemint.com