#StartupsVsCovid19: India’s Drone Startups Join The Fight With Deliveries, Surveillance

#StartupsVsCovid19: India’s Drone Startups Join The Fight With Deliveries, Surveillance


Telangana, Mumbai are looking to include drones in their network of logistics to delivery medicine, flood products and other medical needs

Drones can prove to be economically viable for medicine delivery, not ecommerce or food, says Anshul Sharma of Redwing Aerospace

Stakeholders have started Droneman.in to allow Indian drone startups connect with local authorities looking for solutions

Weighed down by regulations for years, drones have finally risen up again. While 2020 was expected to be the year of drones, the emergence of this sector in recent weeks is because of the quarantines, lockdowns and Covid-19 safety measures around India. In the times of crisis, drones have come up as an effective and simple alternative to limit human contact for things such as crowd dispersals, sanitisation, deliveries of payloads and goods.

This also extends to scanning areas and neighbourhoods with thermal imaging cameras, spreading awareness through public announcements and disinfestation drives.

(Operations by Garuda Aerospace)

Several Indian startups working in these domains further highlighted the depth and breadth of the operations being carried out to keep the situation in check. And startups have plenty of problems to solve in this regard by working with authorities.

While the solutions provided by drones are endless, the community has come together to form Droneman.in. It is a digital platform that will connect registered drone startups with local government authorities. With this, the community is looking to bring more drone startups on board to find simpler and effective solutions to tackle Covid-19.

Supply Chain Gaps Filled By Drones

With the 21-day-lockdown the supply chain for essential items like food, groceries, medicines and medical equipment has taken a hit. Although several players have jumped in to help, the limited workforces continue to persist.

Talking to Inc42, Anshul Sharma, cofounder and co-CEO of aerial robotics startup Redwing Aerospace, highlighted that the pharmaceutical cold chain management is an important aspect of the supply chain in the healthcare industry, but it is also one of the biggest pain points due to the cost. With the integration of drones in the healthcare segment, the cost can be avoided and the deliveries can be made much faster.

“From the manufacturer to the end consumer, there are multiple layers of logistics involved. By the end of it, the cold chain might be broken. If you can ensure that you can reduce the middleman process so much by having a continuous form of logistics and maintaining the cold chain, then the premium cost involved in drone delivery is justified,” he added.

Since last year, drones have made their entry into the delivery of medical supplies, essential and equipment. In June 2019, the Uttarakhand government had the first-hand experience of drone-based delivery. The government has used to successfully deliver a single unit of blood worth INR 10 Lakh from a remote primary health centre located in Uttarakhand’s Tehri district.

Then in October 2019, the Telangana government, in collaboration with Apollo Hospital and the World Economic Forum (WEF), laid out a six-month pilot called ‘Medicines from the Sky’ for last-mile delivery of blood and medical samples in the state. Meanwhile, in September last year, the Maharashtra government too partnered with California-based medical product delivery company Zipline to develop a drone-powered logistics network to deliver medicines, vaccines and blood products to users.

Redwing highlighted that since the supply chain is the first thing that gets hampered during such a crisis, it is important to come up with solutions that ensure a continuous supply of essential products. The company is currently developing a solution in India to keep the supply chain of medical products intact and has claimed to be in talks with the government of Uttarakhand.

Founded by Anshul Sharma, Rishabh Gupta, and Arunabha Bhattacharya, Redwing had also worked with Papua New Guinea authorities in 2018 after a polio outbreak. Sharma also noted that using drones for general delivery purposes like for food delivery and ecommerce delivery would not be economically viable for the companies, but can still be used as a temporary measure. At a time like this, the use of drones in the logistics segment can not only help in delivering goods but also reduce our reliance on human interference and putting them at risk.


Drones Take The Lead In Disinfection

To start, India has a severe lack of personal protective equipment (PPE). So far nearly 50 doctors and medical staff have tested positive for Covid-19. As per a Reuters report, some Indian doctors are forced to rely on raincoats and motorbike helmets in order to protect themselves while treating patients. When Indian doctors are not protected with sufficient gear, are we really sure that the gig economy workers working as delivery agents are well protected?

There are certain areas that are much more susceptible to a community spread of the virus or communicable diseases, either it is because of lack of education, or high population density. “It is imperative that disinfection or sanitisation needs to be done in places where there is a high population and people are unwilling to follow the lockdown,” said Prashant Pillai, cofounder of Indian Robotics Solutions.

Its Corona Combat Drone (CCD) is carrying out disinfection drives in several areas in Delhi in collaboration with the North Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC), including Lal Bagh, Shakurpur Basti, Karol Bagh, Sadar Bazaar and Paharganj. Besides this, the company also conducted a disinfection drive in Narela Quarantine Camp, where also 2000 people related to the Tablighi Jamaat are put under quarantine. Indian Robotics Solutions, founded in 2015 by Sagar Naugriya and Pillai, is in talks with the Haryana government to conduct the disinfection drive pro bono.

Pillai highlighted that for disinfection the company uses a tweaked version of an agriculture drone. “With minor changes in the circuitry and the spray location, any agricultural drone can prove to be effective in the disinfection drive,” he elaborated.

Meanwhile, Garuda Aerospace is using its drones to carry out pro-bono disinfection drives.  Garuda Aerospace has deployed over 300 drones and 500 pilots to disinfect hospitals, public spaces, hotels, corporates and societies in Tamil Nadu, UP and Chhattisgarh. The company has a patented technology of an autopilot where the pilots will be able to control and oversee the drones remotely.

Military Drone Solutions To Monitor Quarantine

The other major problem is that India’s high population density makes it highly vulnerable to viral outbreaks such as coronavirus. In many parts of India, people gathered to celebrate festivals and religious conferences went on unabated. So crowd control is a real issue. Recently, the government told the Supreme Court that almost one-third of the migrant workers returning their home could be infected after crowding at various transit points in the rush to get home.

Drone startups operating in India have also started providing military solutions to aid the government’s efforts in keeping the coronavirus pandemic in check. Whether it’s for surveillance, awareness through announcements or keeping a check on the on-ground situations, drones are being used in all possible ways.

Mumbai-based IdeaForge claimed that its defence and security drones are currently being utilised by several police departments across Rajasthan, J&K, Assam, Gujarat and several other states to carry out such drives. The company highlighted that such solutions help the government cover more area than a single person. Moreover, the drone’s aerial view lets authorities keep a tab on alleyways and rooftop gatherings while increasing response time as well.

The startup has also incorporated thermal cameras drones which are being used by law enforcement to monitor movement in the night. These drones are usually used by the Indian armed forces in sensitive areas and near-border areas. Thermal cameras can also be used to check the high body temperatures as well.

Indian Robotics Solution believes that thermal imaging can prove to be beneficial in identifying people with fever. The company is working on a plan to incorporate this in its drones as well.

While some highlighted that the biggest problem with drones is that incorporating multiple systems onto one UAV is hard. However, Indian Robotics Solutions has claimed to have developed a special drone incorporated with all the features, along with thermal cameras, which can be used to provide a wider range of solutions to effectively tackle the problem.


Will Covid-19 Revive India’s Drone Prospects?

With so many new use-cases for drones in the Indian market, the sector is bound to see a lot more investments in the coming months. After the painstaking online registration, drone startups have to struggle with acquiring permits, certifications and licenses. Many startups may not have the wherewithal to sustain themselves through this process and continue their innovation.

Some drone startup founders pointed out there are remain numerous small gaps which make it impossible to operate drones in accordance with CAR 1.0, and this is not the first criticism levelled at the implementation of the drone policy in India.

But these new applications and use-cases are opening up the market for the drones. In an AMA session with Inc42, Loginext cofounder and CEO Dhruvil Sanghvi said that drone deliveries entering last-mile supply chains will change the game for businesses in logistics, but it will take a few years. He said, “I think there’s a fundamental unit economics issue in using automation technology for fulfillment such as drones. Firstly, the technology is expensive, there are regulatory restrictions and above all, there are range restrictions.”

“I don’t think drones are gonna make any change. There are a lot of improvements in battery ranges, hardware cost, reliability, and safety —- there’s so much work to be done yet.  This will not suddenly make an entry into the door, not for the next 5-10 years at least,” added Sanghvi.

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