Drone or Unmanned Arial Vehicle (UAV) has been in use for over two centuries. The earliest UAVs, created in 1783, were hot-air and hydrogen balloons, which were immediately used for military purposes. The use had limited success.ii First pilotless vehicles were developed during the First World War, and the technology was further developed after the Second World War to use for Reconnaissance, surveillance, and targeted attacks. The civilian use of drone technology is still at the nascent stage.
The drone sector is a sunrise sector in India with the potential to significantly impact defense, surveillance, internal security, disaster management, agriculture, healthcare, geo-spatial mapping, mining, infrastructure, and aerial photography and cinematography, among many other areas.
The Hon’ble Prime Minister is enthusiastic about drones and other emerging technologies like science and tech research, space, quantum technology, and semiconductor. The Government of India, under his leadership, has been promoting the manufacturing and drone and drone components through various policies and schemes, like Production-linked Incentive (PLI), with a vision to make India a global drone hub by 2030.
The Ministry of Civil Aviation, in August 2021, issued liberalised Drone Rules to create a growth-oriented regulatory framework for drones. The policy, among other rules, labelled approximately 90% of airspace as Green Zone and allowed the operation of drones up to a vertical distance of 120 metres. To promote the growth of the industry, the Rules abolished the need for registration and security clearances for operating non-commercial drones in the Green zones. Similarly, the new rules abolished the requirement of remote pilot licence for nano and micro drones (up to 2 KG) for non-commercial use by education, research and development entities, Startups recognised by the Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade and authorised testing entities. To encourage manufacturing, research and innovation, the government also liberalised the import and foreign ownership of Indian drone companies.
Furthermore, as a part of the Atmanirbhar Bharat policy, the Government approved the Production-Linked Incentive (PLI) scheme with an allocation of INR 120 crore spread over three financial years for drones and drone components. The policy mandates a constant PLI rate of 20% for all three years, an exceptional treatment given only to the drone industry.viii The government has released a provisional list of 23 PLI beneficiaries, including 12 drone manufacturers and 11 drone component manufacturers.ix The FY 2022-23 budget announced the Drone Shakti scheme to promote start-ups for Drone-As-A-Service (DrAAS). It also announced the courses for skilling in select ITIs in all states. As the number of UAVs is bound to increase, in 2021, the Ministry of Civil Aviation published National Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management (UTM) Policy Framework to lay down a policy framework for enabling high-density, complex unmanned aircraft operations in very low-level Indian airspace.
The Ministry of Civil Aviation expects that over the next three years, the drones and drone components manufacturing industry may witness an investment of over INR 5,000 Cr, and the annual sales turnover of the industry may grow from INR 60 Cr in 2020-21 to over INR 900 Cr in FY 2023-24 generating over 10,000 direct jobs. It is expected that the drone services industry (operations, logistics, data processing, traffic management etc.) will grow to over INR 30,000 Cr during this period, potentially employing over five lakh people.
India currently has over 200 drone start-ups.xiii Given the potential and evolving technology in this sector, the number will substantially increase. To ensure that India has trained drone operators, several government and private institutions have started training programmes. Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Uran Akademi, an autonomous body under the aegis of the Ministry of Civil Aviation and one of the largest Flight Training Organisations in the country, started DGCA-certified Training at India’s first and exclusive Drone Flying Site in Gurugram along with its Drone Training Partner, M/s Drone Destination Private Limited in Feb 2021. The weeklong course has components of theory, a flight simulator and practical sessions under expert guidance. Similarly, Airbus has just started its drone pilot training courses in India to address the skilling requirements of a growing industry. As informed by the Hon’ble Minister of State at the Ministry of Civil Aviation to the Parliament in February 2023, the DGCA has approved 44 drone training schools across the country. These training schools have certified 2521 drone pilots.
The growth in the nascent sector is currently driven by military operators for surveillance and ensuring internal security. However, the Government is utilising drones to tackle various challenges. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Government used indigenously developed drones to deliver COVID-19 vaccines to remote areas of Manipur, Nagaland, Jammu and Kashmir, and Andaman and Nicobar Islands. As a pilot project, Varanasi Smart City engaged Garuda Aerospace Private Limited, a Chennai Based start-up for spraying sanitizer in the city. Similarly, during the desert locust swarm in 2020, Government employed 12 drones to spray insecticides to protect crops.
With the advancement in technology, improvement in battery, and the reduction in prices, the civilian demand for drones will significantly increase for commercial and private purposes.