Last year, a Mumbai-based drone startup conducted an inspection of power lines in Gujarat for a large power company, part of a leading conglomerate in India. And that’s one of the services that the company provides for some of its big clients.
A two and a half year ban on drones in India may have secured the country’s civilian airspace from soaring unidentified objects, but it has thrown up another challenge. An unregulated drone enterprise services market, which Indian authorities would most probably stamp as illegal, has taken roots.
“Every second enterprise is keen to use drones for surveys, asset monitoring and collecting relevant data,” says the founder of the company mentioned above. He declined to be named for the obvious reason.“We do a lot of the projects where we do not need to get the entire permission. If I start going through that process, I would spend one month of my life for every project for these permissions, which are not going to work out. It is an unviable business that way.”
The same holds true for wedding photography, movie shoots or some event coverage. Most times, companies take permission from the local police referring to drones as flying cameras, if at all they take permissions. And all this happens under the radar.
“This is how we [all are] still functioning in the unregulated space. Many times, clients say that they are ready to take on liabilities [if caught by the regulators]. In those cases we say, ‘chal, kar lete hain (let’s do it),” he adds.
True enough. The October 2014 public notice by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), which banned drones, should have forced smaller drone startups out of business. Because they were primarily offering commercial services such as aerial surveys, mapping and videography as well as the inspection and monitoring for a range of industries—mining, utilities, infrastructure, agriculture and real estate. Although a few startups folded, by and large, these companies were able to continue operations. Officially surviving on government tenders, which are allowed to use drones under the current regulatory landscape, and unofficially, on big and small companies that are willing to take risks to access desirable data.
At a time when the global drone industry is on its way to becoming a $127 billion market in three years, India is comfortable with its own notion of drones. “If we allow drones [for civilians], they will be misused,” is what officials at the DGCA would say behind closed doors. India’s drone industry, which is projected to reach $421 million by 2021, primarily on the back of the defence and government use of drones, is the least of their worries.