How these young entrepreneurs from Assam are keeping India safe with drone tech
For many years, India has been struggling with environmental issues like cyclones and floods, relying mostly on crude technologies. The absence of sufficient aerial surveillance technologies to give the nation an edge compounded the problem. The crude methods proved to be time-consuming, labour-intensive, and could not gain unlimited access to all necessary areas.
For instance, the traditional methods of mapping the Majuli Island followed by the Brahmaputra Board, under the Ministry of Jal Shakti, were restricted to the banks. They could only get the contour data of the terrain, and plan the approach to their river revetment activity. They could mainly identify which area needed a new installation of river revetment, or a repair of the previously-installed one. However, things are changing now and for the better.
With the birth of aerial startups like Drone Tech, collating heavy data for environmental mediation and defence no longer has to be as risky or time-consuming as it used to be.
Guwahati-based Drones Tech Lab, incubated by IIM Calcutta and recognised by Assam Start-Up, is a startup that provides customised geospatial solutions through unmanned systems with accuracy, speed, innovation, and a robust service ethic. They are a solution provider in surveillance, leveraging unmanned systems that include hardware, software, and data analysis systems.
Now that we know what they do and who they are, we must also recognise how they came to be and why this innovative startup is breaking barriers in India. For instance, the company has been at the forefront, technologically and creatively, in promoting disaster management caused by Cyclone Amphan by offering drone technology to aid frontline workers. As one of its founders, Ritesh Kanu says, “With Amphan leaving thousands homeless in suburbans, we were offering our drone technology for aiding disaster management efforts put in by frontline workers.”
This mandate is being pursued vigorously as they now cater to both the private and public sectors. However, when they started in 2014, the industry was generally unpopular and underutilised in the country. They figured they should ride on the waves of global technology growth and be among the first few to blaze the trail in India.
As Kanu says, the idea for the company came about after his bank exam and when an old school friend, Biswajit Dey – armed with a degree in Aeronautics – was recuperating from an injury. “He was recuperating from an injury caused during training in Indian Army Officer’s Training Academy, Chennai. He had thought about starting a venture in drone technology which he had fallen in love with while attending one of the college symposiums."
Kanu and Dey soon realised that unmanned aerial technology had untapped potentials which could be infused into the Indian society at an affordable rate. The need was present, the market is huge, and there was no reason not to do it.
“Dey and I felt drones and the unmanned aerial technology have huge potentials that can be implemented in various scenarios to reduce cost, save time, as well as undertake the tasks that at times prove to be fatal to humans,” Kanu explains.
A year after the sudden realisation, they encountered the engineering manager of Skipper Limited, Guwahati, and he also became a member of the team. Debajit Deka was a welcomed addition to the team because the duo knew that they needed someone with excellent operational skills. As Kanu says, it was an easy union. "We on-boarded him as one the co-founding members, and thereon it has been a thirteen-member team working from offices at Guwahati, IIM Calcutta, and Kashmir.
And so, on an auspicious day 2014 – at a time when drones and UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicle) were not particularly popular – they went ahead with zeal and determination to carve a niche for themselves. They have, over the years, grown and expanded in size and scope.
Solving a problem
In the aerial surveillance industry, Drone Tech Lab is a solution designer and systems integrator. They were initially focused on the defence industry and building micro surveillance solutions for them. However, with the increase in demand for drones and related services, they expanded their facilities. Their aerial solution tech is equipped with oblique, thermal, and multi-spectral payloads to penetrate otherwise inaccessible places with ease and almost unbeatable speed.
“We design solutions by identifying and integrating the best-in-class hardware, software, and data analysis systems with annual maintenance contracts and services as per specific customer requirements,” Kanu notes. The advantages of aerial tech solutions include reducing human risks, real-time tracking, speed of information, accessibility to remote regions, and higher data density collation.
While the industry seems to have taken a great shape in the last few years, there are challenges that even thoroughbreds like Drone Tech Lab have to deal. One way or another, they have found a way to resolve them. Over the years, they have been notable for being instrumental in two of the main challenges in the area. First, Majuli has the issue of incessant flooding, which not only leads to loss of lives and properties but also erodes a significant part of the island. Secondly, the Kolkata Municipal faces dengue challenges every year, which results in loss of lives as well.
To solve these problems, they have deployed a drone-based mapping solution integrated with post-process kinematics to aid absolute accuracy and removed the need for GCPs (Google cloud platform) for absolute precision. With this drone solution, along with mapping payload and GIS (geographic information system) software, they covered 5 - 6 sq. km in one day compared to 1 - 1.5 sq. km if they had used traditional methods. Also, they deployed a combination of mapping drone and heavy payload drone solutions capable of spraying 10 - 16 litres of liquid over 6 - 7 acres of area uniformly within 9 - 10 minutes.
The sustainable business model
The company’s business model revolves around UAV based solutions, deployment upon subscription, piloting services, and annual maintenance contracts. Drone Tech Lab designs solutions to meet the specific needs of each client. However, some of these solutions are replicable, and they target industries where this would be beneficial. Drone Tech Lab also produces off-the-shelf solution designs that can be replicated, up-scaled, and integrated into several industries.
“Our focus is on providing solutions that can transcend traditional boundaries and that take the best from each vertical or silo and have the potential to become best-in-class solutions, capable of delivering to a broad market," Kanu adds.
With just an initial investment of Rs 6 lakh, they have garnered investments from big shots like Balmer Lawrie & Co Ltd. Their current turnover is Rs 2.02 crore.
The road is not all smooth
Like every entrepreneur, these innovators have had their fair share of troubles. The business world is like a shark, ready to swallow anyone who lacks the stamina to stay ahead. Financial management and investments, hiring resources, and signing partnership deals are some issues they have had to deal with over the years. "Our resources were often limited, and there was no space for bad hiring decisions. As a start-up, no organisation tends to indulge in a partnership with you," Kanu says.
Dealing with the pandemic crisis
While several businesses are going through a rough phase because of Covid-19, however, on the other hand, the situation has propelled the need for having drone-based solutions at different regimes. From using drones to disinfect public places or providing an aerial view for the frontline workers to ensure social distancing norms are being followed by people, drone-based solutions have caught the eyeballs of various government officials for its shrewd effectiveness.
"We are fortunate enough to have started at the right time for us to be able to ride this new wave of technological advancement. Among others we are working extensively with Forest Department, Government of Assam; Assam Inland Water Transport Development Society; and the Guwahati Metropolitan Development Authority to bring in solutions that can be deployed readily for the greater good of the society as well ones that can provide them pretty good operational effectiveness," claims Kanu.
The way forward: a five-year plan
With several successes already recorded in their collective effort to help India manage its environments properly, there is still a lot to achieve. The company is currently in its last stage of launching its fixed-wing hybrid VTOL system. This new system is designed to help significantly improve the mapping capacity of a specified region.
Ritesh gives a broader perspective. "Our focus for the next few years is to strengthen our survey and mapping solution portfolio. As the industry opens up, we tend to make ourselves readily equipped with the solutions being required to grab the opportunity and catapult ourselves to the next step. Dialogues for our next round of fundraising are already on the cards, and we expect to raise two rounds within this time frame."
For Drone Tech Lab, the focus is to provide sustainable solutions to environmental challenges, and they are doing it one step at a time.