Fly in the sky
Recently, you may have seen some astonishing aerial video coverage of the election campaigns of Bharatiya Janata Party’s Narendra Modi and Aam Aadmi Party’s Arvind Kejriwal in Varanasi, on the news channel Headlines Today. For 40 days, a team from the Mumbai-based company Quidich went around the country with television anchor Rahul Kanwal of Headlines Today, creating television history. The Quidich team—yes, very close to the wizarding sport on broomsticks from the world of Harry Potter—flew tiny drones equipped with cameras into the sky. They followed politicians across cities to provide never-before bird’s-eye views of public meetings.
These unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones, are being deployed across a variety of situations, creating a new business that is attracting entrepreneurs.
Drones made a big splash some months ago when online retailer Amazon announced its plans to use them for doorstep delivery. But that’s a glitzy application that has romanced the hearts and minds of people like you and me. In reality, drones are out there, serving humanity in ways that are astonishing.
“We are deploying drones in Singapore to inspect and report the condition of solar panels in vast arrays of solar farms,” says Pulkit Jaiswal, co-founder of Garuda Robotics, a company that builds software to drive and manage vast drone fleets. “Traditionally, an army of people is required to do the inspection. They climb on scaffolding and use infrared guns to detect tiny flaws that reduce the efficiency of solar cells. The inspection costs thousands of dollars and takes months to complete.” Now, Jaiswal’s company flies drones equipped with cameras and infrared guns using GPS systems and controllers on the ground to complete the task safely and within hours at a fraction of the cost.
Twenty-one-year-old Jaiswal (“don’t worry, the co-founder is 33 years old; I have adult supervision”) started his company in Silicon Valley about a year ago but moved to Singapore where regulations do not hamper entrepreneurs from developing and using drones for commercial purposes. The US, although it allows you to build, sell and fly a number of UAVs as toys, bans their commercial use. The US federal aviation administration cites a policy to prevent drone use for anything other than recreation.
So Jaiswal’s six-person company, Garuda, now operates from Singapore and boasts a seed round of funding from the Singapore government and a small group of private investors to develop its fleet management software. Fundamentally, Garuda has built a Dropbox for drones that allows measurements and records created by drones such as aerial surveillance videos, ionizing radiation measurement from Geiger counters and thermal imagery from infrared guns, to be sent to a storage device on the Internet. This data is made accessible to men and machines, instantly, for analytics anywhere.
There are companies across India using drones for geographical mapping and geological surveys, investigating contaminated locations (where chemical leaks could be a hazard), monitoring gas pipelines and railway tracks, observing wildlife, surveying large farms and agricultural land, examining difficult-to-access wind farm blades for damage, crowd management (for festivals), stealth monitoring of national borders, aerial cinematography, etc. This perhaps tells you that the days of the Spidercam for cricket coverage may be numbered. Soon, we’ll see agile and precisely controlled drones providing us incredible coverage of sports events (see the TED video listed in The Things About Drones).
Others across the country are using it for the rain-producing process of cloud seeding without having to fly expensive aircraft, and for search-and-rescue operations in difficult-to-reach terrain.
The police departments of Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai are already using drones to monitor crowds during festivals. Their drones can be piloted to any location to provide a video feed to a central control room for action. Recently, a cycle race in Bangalore was monitored with the help of a drone.
Bangalore-based Pritam Sahu’s company Edall Systems has been designing and building drones since 2008 in collaboration with the National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL). His six-member team built Nayan, an 18kg, heavy-duty drone with a wingspan of 3m that can fly for 3-5 hours. Most commercial drones (non-toys) would have a wingspan of 1-2m, with a range of 10-15km, and can remain airborne for up to an hour depending on the payload. They use direct data links to base stations to transmit telemetric data.
“One of the things we have begun to do is offer training to engineering students on the use, control and management of drones,” says Sahu, 29, an aerospace engineer who was with NAL, but left to work with aircraft manufacturer Airbus as a flight control engineer before starting Edall Systems. Training for such UAVs will be in demand as an increasing number of businesses begin to acquire UAV fleets and deploy them.
Drones are soon going to be around us, everywhere. And until we find a more appropriate phrase, they will be gaining ground quickly.
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The things about drones
Here are some ways to get started with unmanned aerial vehicles.
Do you want to design and build your own drone?
You could visit Maker’s Asylum, the not-for-profit community space that brings together design, technology, engineering and manufacturing skills, along with power tools and talent.
Do you want to buy a drone for fun?
The Parrot AR Drone 2.0 Quadricopter is available for Rs.36,990 on Amazon. The Parrot AR Drone 2.0 is equipped for high-definition live video streaming to your iPhone or iPad. No, Amazon doesn’t deliver it at your doorstep using a drone. Not yet, anyway. However, shipping is free. A range of hobby quadricopters is available from Rs.8,200. A variety of drones are also available at Flipkart.
Did you think drones are mindless flying robots?
Take a look at this TED video that demonstrates the astonishing athletic powers of quadcopters using mathematical algorithms, the possibilities that drones present, and a philosophical look at machine-human interfaces.
Did you miss their use in election coverage on a TV channel?
Haven’t seen the classic video-from-the-future of Amazon testing its drone delivery system?
Check out Amazon Prime Air, being tested.