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The evolution of Drones

Here's what drones promise to do, once we figure out their full potential

An IDRL event at IIT, Bombay.
An IDRL event at IIT, Bombay.

A man-eating tiger was captured recently near the Pilibhit Tiger Reserve in Uttar Pradesh, ending an ordeal that had lasted a few months and claimed six lives. All the traditional methods had been employed to catch Mallu, the two-year-old tigress.

“We had conducted many reconnaissance missions in the past, with not much success," says V.K. Singh, conservator of forests, Bareilly. “After the latest (sixth) death, the locals lost all patience. That’s when we decided to use drones," he adds.

In such situations, progress is evaluated in baby steps, not lunar strides, and having a predator “surrounded" in a 5-acre sugarcane field is considered a tactical advantage. So, the World Wildlife Fund and Quidich, a Mumbai-based company that specializes in unmanned aerial services, brought in drone technology to assist in the capture. Within 24 hours, the tiger had been located, tranquillized and taken to the Lucknow zoo—where it will presumably serve a life sentence. Mallu’s capture is a seminal moment for drones in the history of man-animal conflict in India. “We now plan to use drones more regularly. The technology is effective and makes it easy to monitor the animals," Singh says.

A Chennai-based start-up, Garuda Aerospace, is already experimenting with drones to prevent man-animal conflict. In this case, it’s for elephants that often stray into private territory looking for fodder. Garuda’s prototypes emit loud, unsettling noises that deter the elephants from entering the farms, sending them back into the forests.

In the past few years, however, drones have caught popular culture’s attention for altogether different reasons. In 2013, promised deliveries to American homes within 30 minutes using drones. The company finally achieved this milestone last December in Cambridge.

From once being prohibitively expensive for all but the defence forces, drones have become viable for commercial use due to the exponential advancements in computing and widespread access to GPS. “The technology in drones today is cutting-edge," says Rahat Kulshreshtha, co-founder of Quidich. “You can equip all sorts of sensors—from visual and thermal to sonar and more specific gauges," he adds.

Kulshreshtha studied film-making in London at the University of Westminster, and worked in the UK for a couple of years before making his way back home. “But we now do more work with England than what I did back then," he laughs. Some of Quidich’s recent exploits in film-making include shooting drone footage in Ladakh, for BBC’s Planet Earth II wildlife documentary, which released to critical acclaim last year.

The BBC series presents a compelling argument for drones. There’s footage of golden eagles being pursued mid-flight in the Alps, and a glide-through over the tree-top canopies of Costa Rica’s rainforests. But the most impressive sequence has the camera lift off a boat in Brazil’s muddy Araguaia river, and slowly zoom out to reveal several black blips in a brown backdrop: a pod of river dolphins. This rare, nearly blind species was only discovered as recently as 2014.

ElseVR, an Indian platform for virtual reality journalism, used drones to capture the emotional landscape of a coal mine for its documentary, When All Land Is Lost, Will We Eat Coal?. Zain Memon, creative director at ElseVR and a self-professed futurist, explains that drones have essentially democratized flight. “A major production shot with the helicopter can now be achieved by any production company or school," he says.

Given this paradigm shift in access and convenience, it’s surprising that current drone regulations in India are restrictive at best, and crippling at worst. In 2014, the directorate general of civil aviation (DGCA)—the regulatory agency for Indian civil airspace—effectively banned the unauthorized use of drones, only weeks after a Mumbai-based pizza outlet made a drone delivery. The police wrote to both the food chain in question and Air Traffic Control (ATC), questioning the legality.

Last year, the DGCA released a circular with draft guidelines on the way forward. “This is what we’re thinking about" is a simple way of summarizing the circular. As things stand, it is still illegal to use drones without prior permission. But the DGCA can make exceptions after consulting the ministry of home affairs, defence, air navigation service provider and “other concerned security agencies".

Drones have become viable for commercial use for its advancements in computing and widespread access to GPS. Photo: iStockphoto

Beyond security issues

To play the devil’s advocate, the DGCA’s concerns seem valid. By merely getting caught in overhead electric cables, even a small home-built drone could potentially cause an electric blackout. According to Memon, drones could be the chief plot device of any modern-day horror story. “It’ll be a disaster if you fly a drone into a helicopter’s rudder or the jet engine of a plane."

Even so, we need to find a balance to move forward. Anirudh Rastogi, a lawyer who works with emerging technology businesses through his firm TRA, says the DGCA simply does not have the bandwidth or capacity to deal with this issue. “It doesn’t justify a complete ban. Some things can still be done safely and securely, such as limited test-flying, design, and basic research and development," says Rastogi. “However, from a national security standpoint, the paranoia is so high, forget drones, even manned microlight aircraft are not permitted to fly," he adds.

While terrorism may be the first threat, for Captain Raghu Raman, a former chief executive officer of the National Intelligence Grid and now group president at Reliance Industries Ltd, drone airspace management or ATC, for lack of a better analogy, is not even on the DGCA’s radar. He believes drones are, without a doubt, the future. “Tomorrow, when thousands of drones are operating in the air, it’ll be like managing a road with a million cars on it. The DGCA and national security advisor are only looking at rogue drone possibilities. But there’s more to this than terrorism."

The drone used in Pilibhit for tiger-tracking.

Play time

It might look like commercial unmanned aviation has flown into a quagmire, but things are still getting done. Almost every third Bollywood film today has sequences shot with drones. Mumbai even has its own official drone-racing league—a championship funded by international sponsors. Drone racing, a spectator sport, is already big in the US and the United Arab Emirates, so why not in India? Here, drone pilots, often mere hobbyists and enthusiasts, sit in a room wearing virtual reality headsets. The drones are made to race live in pre-planned circuits that evoke sci-fi film, Tron-style art direction. They also feature cameras that transmit the live video feed into the pilots’ headsets. It’s both virtual and real, simultaneously.

Karan Kamdar, president of the Indian Drone Racing League (IDRL), says that since they started the league in August, they have already conducted events at many college campuses, including the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Gandhinagar, IIT, Madras and IIT, Bombay. How are they able to navigate the legal conundrum? “Since we predominantly operate in universities, the authorities are more than obliging, as it’s in a contained environment," says Kamdar. Rastogi adds, “It’s debatable whether flying indoors is ‘national airspace’."

Drone technology is charging ahead. Today, something like the DJI Mavic Pro, which costs around Rs70,000-80,000, can shoot in ultra-high resolution and be folded quickly to fit into a backpack. Every couple of days, there are newer developments. Nano-drones, each weighing less than a few grams, can work in large swarms to carry out complex operations. Drones are even being used for anti-drone measures. These larger devices detect and track down smaller drones, throw nets on them mid-air and bring them to the ground. And in the recent news, flying drone taxis will ply in Dubai as early as this July.

It’s safe to end then with Leonardo da Vinci, who spoke about aviation a few hundred years before its invention. For the second time, he will be right. “For once you have tasted flight, you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been and there you will long to return."

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