By Prasanna Shevare, Apurva Godbole (Drona Aviation) and Abhishek Jain (Zeus Numerix Pvt. Ltd.)
History of UAVs
When we speak of drones, images of a quadrotor quickly pop up in our mind. The last decade has especially seen the popularity of the drones soar significantly once they started being used for hobby flying. Not only have they been used for aerial cinematography in films, TV series etc., they have starting appearing in pop culture (Big Bang Theory, Silicon Valley in US and a number of Hindi and even Marathi serials in India). But ask anyone when the drone was made and you’ll get responses varying anywhere from 1995 to WW2 to WW1. Not many know that the first (attempted) use of drone was in 1849 when Austria attached Venice with explosive laden balloons. Like so many other applications, drone was also a byproduct of military innovations. Subsequent developments in technology brought it to the level it is at today.
Evolution of drones
Throughout most of the 20th century, drones being limited to model aircrafts or slightly advanced version of them. Until late 20th century and early noughties, drones / UAVs were associated with large unmanned planes used to bomb war zones far away.
However, the miniaturisation of the computing power along with lower cost development and manufacturing of brushless DC motors gave shape to the earliest prototypes of the four propeller multi-rotor that most people have now started associating with the word drone. And it really caught fancy of people at large when any consumer could get one to take some amazing aerial photos and videos of oneself.
Fast forward to today, drone applications have seen tremendous more growth in the last decade than it did a century before that. Funnily enough, all the technology components were built and ready in 20th century, but it took people’s imagination and free markets to make the applications happen. This is not unlike the first iPhone, which while create a revolution in what a cell phone looks like, used all the technology components that were invented in the 20th century.
Starting from defence and then consumers, drones today have also found significant traction in commercial applications. These include areas such as land surveying, mapping, precision agriculture, pesticide spraying and surveillance based applications for asset monitoring. At the same time, there is increasing R&D work happening in the field of drone deliveries, drone taxis among others.
Weight classification of drones
As per Indian regulations, drones are classified as
- Nano drones – <250 gm
- Micro drones – 250 g – 2 kg
- Small drones – 2 kg – 25 kg
- Medium drones – 25 kg – 150 kg
- Large drones – >150 kg
Defense Market for drone applications
While commercial drone applications are finding interesting traction, according to a 2019 report by Goldman Sachs, defense will still constitute a strong 70% share of the entire market. Of these the large assault drones constitute a strong component and are broadly dominated by Israel and US companies. Indian companies have found some foothold in the microdrones space which are primarily used for surveillance purpose.
Nano drones have had a reverse trajectory of applications compared to the micro or small drones till date. They started out with pure play hobby – toy usage and are slowly being explored for usage in commercial and then into the defense applications. Some of the most popular nano-drones start from as low as $10 going all the way to in a few $1000s. They also found strong adoption in the drone racing space. In the developer / commercial space, nano drones are finding a lot of usage for education and idea prototyping purposes. Some of the largest nano-drone companies have deep focus on education space.
Nano drones have also evoked strong interest among the all the wings of defense area. Prox Dynamics, a company that was originally building toy drones, later pivoted to manufacture its flagship nano drone – Black Hornet – for the defense forces. It has a fairly good endurance and low weight and is fairly expensive even from the defense standpoint. And while something like Black Hornet is used purely for surveillance purpose, nano drones have set fire to imagination of various members of the armed forces for their specific use cases.
While a drone like Black Hornet is broadly for all type of surveillance, Indian manufacturers and defense personnel are looking for some very specific customized applications. These include closed space surveillance – something that could have been the eye of the soldier before they enter a closed space battlefield (a la 2008 Taj Mumbai). These could also be used in anti-terror operations where terrorists have been holed up in a closed space but poses a very high risk to anyone who will try to barge in to neutralize. Nano drones can also be used in swarms to check out a large area (either closed space or maze structure) with the right set of localisation capabilities to gather fast intel of a large area before taking action. And finally, one can explore using nano drones to stun the enemy in a guided manner which may not be possible through a regular stun grenade. With a joint development between the armed forces and the industry, such focused use cases can be developed and deployed.
About Drona Aviation and Zeus Numerix
Drona Aviation is a SINE IIT Bombay startup whose founders have been working for more than 10 years in the field of drones. Countries like China, US and Israel have a strong head start in the field of drones. India can attempt to compete with these countries (and others globally) only if we have a large open source community of drone enthusiasts, tinkerers and application developers. With that focus, Drona Aviation has built the Pluto platform which is ideal for students to learn drones and engineers to prototype their drone ideas on top of. Drona Aviation is the only Indian company making drones for developers. It is also the only Indian company manufacturing nano drones. They have reached between 5 to 10 lakh students across India through our collaborations with NitiAayog’s Atal Innovation Mission. They also work with other industrial partners on building customized use cases specific to their industries.
Zeus Numerix is also a SINE IIT Bombay incubated startup.