On a sweltering May afternoon this year, Francesco’s Pizzeria, a Mumbai-based pizza outlet, used an unmanned drone to deliver pizza to a flat in a high-rise apartment in Worli, central Mumbai. Twelve days later, the Mumbai police wrote to the outlet demanding an explanation for why they hadn’t taken prior police permission. The police also wrote to the Air Traffic Control at the Mumbai International Airport asking whether the pizza outlet had sought permission to conduct the experiment.
The Mumbai police’s wariness had its roots in earlier reports, that aerial attacks on Indian cities were being planned. According to a story in The Hindu, Zabiuddin Ansari, also known as Abu Jundal, one of the alleged handlers in the 26/11 terror attack case, had told investigators that “Pakistan was planning an aerial attack on the city and had trained paragliders, after which [the] Mumbai police had tightened its rules, even requesting building societies to not allow access to strangers to the terraces of the buildings.”
Despite these concerns, drones or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) have caught the fancy of enthusiasts and entrepreneurs, who foresee great potential in their use in all kinds of businesses. Anam Aggarwal, the CEO of Funaster, a Delhi-based company that sells drones, told me that earlier, drones cost between five and seven lakh rupees for even the basic models, which discouraged people from buying them. Over the past two years, however, prices have fallen to between one and two lakh rupees for some advanced drones.
“Considering it takes less than a month to learn how to operate, thousands of enthusiasts have cropped up,” Aggarwal said. “However, due to lack of professional trainers available, a lot of drones meet with accidents initially, for which we outline in our buyer’s contract that the buyer is solely responsible.” He added that with the entry of a Chinese drone manufacturer, DJI, whose copters have intuitive controls and are affordable, with a small one available for around Rs 50,000, there has been a sudden crop of start-ups that use drones. “Most of them focus on aerial cinematography or photography,” Aggarwal said.
The Noida-based aerial photography and video-services company Quidich, which uses multi-rotor drones to shoot aerial videos, is one such start-up. During the election season this year, they collaborated with the news channel Headlines Today to aerially shoot panoramic views of the crowds gathered at much-publicised constituencies such as Varanasi, Muzaffarnagar, Vadnagar and Amethi. When I asked the CEO, Rahat Kulshreshtha, how they managed to get permits, he said, “Our agreement clearly states to the client that they need to acquire the permission for us to shoot.” Quidich’s clients, such as Headlines Today and the BBC, handled permissions for the assignments. However, at a park near their Noida office, where they train their employees in using their sophisticated coptors, they needed to obtain the consent of all the residents, who were worried that drones might collide with children or old people. Now, they fly their drones for practice and training only when the park is unpopulated.
But even while regulations remain fuzzy, some impressive work is being carried out using drones. During the floods in Uttarakhand last year, for instance, the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) deployed four UAVs to scan areas that rescue and relief workers had not been able to reach. At the Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh, drones are used to keep an eye on poachers.
But the Indian government has yet to draft specific policies on drones. In a report by Scroll.in, Prabhat Kumar, the director general of the DGCA, was quoted as saying, “We are looking at regulations being developed in other countries for reference.” Businesses dealing in drones have been urging the government to instate legislation and regulations that make the commercial use of drones legal, and to incorporate a licensing procedure, similar to those for guns, which regulates users and makes them traceable and accountable. In the absence of rules, businesses are treading cautiously. Recently, four members of a film crew were detained by the police for using drones to shoot an aarti at one of the ghats of the Ganges without permission in Varanasi. Funaster, to ensure security and prevent drones from landing in the wrong hands, has incorporated unique barcodes in the drones that they sell, and has been demanding to see prospective buyers' passports for identity verification before a sale. “If the government provides a specific height restriction, I can tweak the software of all drones in such a way that they never breach that height,” Aggarwal said.
Other countries are beginning to formulate policies to regulate drones. Australia, France, Singapore and Japan are among the most accommodating, and allow commercial usage. In the US, courts have been directing the Federal Aviation Administration to allow companies and individuals to fly drones, which is likely to pave the way for Amazon’s Prime Air delivery system to become a reality. A recent article in The Guardian featured an engineer-artist team who have created the Flone—an easily constructed drone whose movements can be controlled through an intuitive smartphone app, similar to videogame controls. If Indian authorities are indeed looking at developments in other countries for reference and adaptation, pizza delivery to your balcony via drones may soon be commonplace.
Harsh Snehanshu is an author and a Young India Fellow. He is currently an exchange student at the school of urban affairs at Sciences Po, Paris.