Clearly, the commercial potential of unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, the technical term for drones, has captured the imagination of entrepreneurs, who see them as the future of all kinds of businesses.
Drones now roam Indian skies, catching poachers and shooting videos. Last month, a pizza joint in Mumbai created online buzz when it released a video of the Italian pie getting delivered by a drone. It turned out to merely be a promotional video shot in bits and pieces with an empty pizza box; no pizza was actually delivered.
Last weekend, a Russian eatery took aerial delivery a step further. On June 21, DoDo Pizza in the city of Syktyvkar in Russia drone-delivered pizzas to students in a park and claims to have continued the service beyond the initial test. Its video shows an octocopter, a drone with eight rotors, dropping ordered pizzas down in a park with a long cord.
Drones are increasingly catching the fancy of anyone with an interest in flying, photography or aerial cinematography, and UAV owners are constantly testing the boundaries of how far they can take the technology. Last week, for instance, a photographer from New Zealand flew his drone over central Beijing, capturing rare footage of government areas. The filming briefly got him into trouble with the local police, but his video, uploaded on YouTube, reveals the ability of UAVs to view cities through a different perspective, with an ease that wasn’t possible until recently.
In India, small UAVs are now easily available in the market, both online as well as in shops in places like Delhi’s Khan Market or Chandni Chowk. They cost around the same as a smartphone.
Some companies, such as Delhi-based Quidich, are successfully using multirotor drones to shoot aerial videos and photographs for clients that include filmmakers and television news channels. In Madhya Pradesh, the Panna Tiger Reserve has tested the use of drones for keeping track of tigers and looking out for poachers.
UAVs may not yet become ubiquitous, given the apprehensions of governments to commercial drones. While the Russian pizza service has been an exception, government authorities have objected to drones being used for business in most countries.
In Mumbai, for instance, the local police initiated an inquiry against Francesco’s Pizzeria for flying the unmanned vehicle through the city without police permission. No arrest or formal complaint was eventually made, because there are no laws in place regarding the flying of drones.
In the US, the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates airspace, issued a notice last week that puts on hold all UAV delivery services till rules for unmanned flying are formalised by the US government.
Authorities are concerned about safety and the breach of privacy if unmanned, remote-operated drones with built-in cameras fly unregulated in cities. Since the technology is still new and open to multiple possibilities, there are still no concrete regulations that define how UAVs can be used.
In India, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation allows a limited bandwidth of radio frequency for recreational flying by civilians, but has nothing in response to UAVs so far. “We don’t have any regulations for drones right now, but are in the process of preparing some rules,” said Prabhat Kumar, the director general of the DGCA. “We are looking at regulations being developed in other countries for reference.” As of now, he said, we do not even have any specific restriction on how high UAVs can be flown.
Meanwhile, UAV enthusiasts who seek to exploit the market potential of these mini flying machines have no option but to tread cautiously.
“We make sure our clients get appropriate local permission before we shoot any videos for them with UAVs,” said Tanuj Bhojwani, the technical head at Quidich, one of the few companies that uses drones for aerial photography in India. While most of these companies keep a low profile, Quidich came into the limelight this March when it tied up with a news channel to capture aerial footage of the general elections, insightfully capturing crowd strength and voter enthusiasm at different rallies through the air.
Quidich was launched early last year by a group of four young entrepreneurs, and most of their initial clients were filmmakers who wanted to shoot in remote locations where permissions and regulations were easier to obtain. “It was only during the election, while shooting large crowds, that permissions were sometimes denied,” said Bhojwani. “We are cautious about this, but there are really no laws to govern UAVs at the moment.”
So far, the only non-controversial use of drones in India is recreational or hobby flying, which seems to be catching on among aviation and technology enthusiasts. “I have bought three drones since last year, and I use them just for fun, to fly on the weekends and to improve my navigation skills,” said a Mumbai-based professional who did not wish to be named.
He flies these drones indoors and in parks, operating them through WiFi on his smart phone, and even has a friend who bought drones for his children. “For me, it’s like having a live video game, but if there are people who want to use drones imaginatively for profit, what’s wrong with that?” he asked.
Technology experts agree, and for now, they are hoping that guidelines for UAV usage are released soon so that the use of commercial drones can be explored further. “In a country like ours, UAVs can become an important tool for purposes like surveying farmlands and conserving wildlife,” said Bharat Malkani, chairperson of Max Aerospace and Aviation, an aerospace engineering company. “We need to ensure that we don’t over-regulate their use.”
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