Building the drone ecosystem, and creating future-ready jobs

Economic Times, July 27, 2022

By Pradeep S Mehta and Tanya Goyal

As drones are gaining prominence, several sectors and industries are incorporating them into the plethora of services being offered. They are edging closer to becoming part of our daily lives.

Almost a year has passed since India introduced the new Drone Rules 2021 liberalising India’s drone industry. Flying on the edge of being the drone capital of the world by 2030, the domestic drone industry is experiencing rapid development. For this, India demonstrated loudly with its mesmerising show with 1000 ‘Made in India’ drones at the beginning of the year. However, the growth is at risk with the weak ecosystem prevailing for the industry. To this end, as the industry develops, it has the potential to create 500,000 jobs by 2025. But for India to tap such a potential, it needs to rework its strategies for skilling, reskilling, and upskilling. This will help India cope with the demand emanating from the industry’s growth.

Regulatory Drone Regime

As drones are gaining prominence, several sectors and industries are incorporating them into the plethora of services being offered. They are edging closer to becoming part of our daily lives.

Swiggy, for example, is partnering with Garuda Aerospace, to test drone technologies for grocery delivery in Delhi and Bangalore. Further, India Meteorological Department (IMD) is conducting a pilot drone study to forecast weather, which will revolutionise atmospheric data collection in India. In Bhopal, police are already deploying drones to monitor traffic and ensure a smoother and safer circulation flow. For nefarious reasons, drones with drugs are flying across from our western borders.

In spite of the negatives and positives, the Indian government’s impetus and objective played a major role in speeding up the process. As one of the first steps, the release of Drone Rules 2021, is liberalising and streamlining the regulatory aspect of acquiring and operating drones. To make India a global manufacturer and exporter of this technology, the government allocated Rs 120 crore incentive for drones and their components in September 2021 through PLI schemes. Later, in February 2022, the ban on the import of drones (except for R&D, defence, and security purposes) induced another major boost for India’s drone manufacturing industry.

Currently, India’s global drone market share amounts to a minuscule 4.25 percent. However, it is estimated that these measures will result in an annual sales turnover for drone manufacturers of Rs. 9 billion in the financial year 2023-2024, compared to Rs 600 million in 2020-2021. Such government measures are welcome, but not enough to lead the global aviation market. From this end, becoming a global hub for drone tech by 2030 does not appear feasible as long as India only keeps pouring investments into the manufacturing sector while overlooking the balanced ecosystem required for commercial adoption of drones.

But to lead the next era of aviation focusing on the manufacturing sector alone will not be an ideal solution. We need experts from operators, technicians, application researchers, market developers, and key collaborators to run the drone ecosystem. Now is the right time to re-evaluate and rethink the strategies.

The Skill Crunch

In the race ahead, India is equipped with the appropriate infrastructure, adequate supply chains, and technical capacity. However, as the country approaches mass adoption and production of drones, a major challenge concerns the skills shortage. By next year, the demand for qualified personnel is estimated to increase by around 15-20% proportionate to the growing industry. Nevertheless, there are no skilled professionals to fill the future vacant positions. The government’s “Drone Shakti” initiative, and efforts to collaborate with universities appear to build the baseline that would need additional inputs to achieve the desired growth.

India needs to think higher in terms of education, and skilling. It needs to move fast. The education sector along with the right collaborations with the universities can help. Several other institutions both at the central, state and private sector levels can be roped in to build a skilling infrastructure.

We need regulations to incorporate and identify the possibility of drone practice in all areas of work to tap the potential of the entire drone ecosystem. For example, drones have the potential to influence the future of the legal practice. India needs to be prepared for that too. Other job positions available would include surveyors, programmers, and technicians in drone operations, maintenance, quality assurance, etc.

Specialised profiles for different sectors, weather conditions, and terrains will also be required as drone technologies will be deployed for a large range of activities in agriculture, logistics, real estate, etc. This is a prerequisite to using en masse the technologies or drones that India will produce.

Way Forward

In a moment in which unemployment is a big challenge for the country, India needs to look at such futuristic sectors which have the potential to create more jobs. There is a long journey ahead from technology and product development to commercial adoption of the tech. India needs to step up its game and this could be achieved through the series of following stages.

India needs to intensify its manufacturing capability through either tech licensing or the adoption of tech for manufacturing on a large scale i.e. subscribing to Industry 4.0. It needs to design drones for different applications, for which a design application centre could be built. In line with the range of sectors/business segments and application of the product, there is a need to develop skilled operators for the same. A robust maintenance infrastructure also needs to be put in place for product utilisation and skilled technicians would be required as part of the value chain.

India must not focus on just becoming a global exporter of drones, but the industry needs to be seen in balance with other areas of work and sectors to grow at the desired pace in the country. Digitisation and technology need to be dovetailed, but skilling and training are a must to take along as we move forward.

The authors work for CUTS International, a global public policy research and advocacy group.


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