On Vasant Bhat’s farm in the Western Ghats in Karnataka, drones fly over coffee, cardamom, vanilla and other standing crops.
The 34-year-old, who is also the founder of Bengaluru startup Trithi Robotics, uses his family’s farm as a testing ground to deploy drones not just to monitor and analyse crop health, but also spray fungicides and herbicides when required.
His company is among the many that are hiring drone pilots, making their skills of flying unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) among the most sought after in the new economy. “Drones reduce chemical usage because you only spray where required. They can cover 12-13 acres a day, which is unmatched by human labour,” says Bhat.
Drone pilots are no longer just hobbyists with deep pockets. According to one estimate, there are at least 40,000 UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) in the country, and the bulk of them are privately owned.
India in process of framing drone norms
Drones are used for everything from shooting ads and photographing weddings to tracking poachers, mapping railway tracks, surveying solar plants and for military and police surveillance. In 2016, tech website Factor Daily named drone flying as one of the most sought-after skills in silicon city Bengaluru. And for many millennials, flying drones is a great opportunity to have fun at work.
“Even after four years, every day as a drone pilot brings new experiences,” says Oauchitya Vashisht, 25, who has flown drones for tourism ads, Marathi films, TV serials and industrial surveys. “Flying is synonymous with freedom,” the Delhiite adds. “It is a never-ending creative field which lets you travel, meet new people and pays well.”
As a boy, aviation and aeromodelling fascinated Vashisht. So, after getting a degree in aeronautical engineering in 2014, he chose to become a drone pilot. “You have to apply your mind every time because the environment is different. You have to look for obstacles and orientation,” he says.
Rahat Kulshreshtha is a filmmaker-turned-drone enthusiast, and co-founder of Mumbai-based startup Quidich. “When we started, people would laugh and ask us why we were playing with toys,” he says. “I believed this technology was here to stay because of the speed and efficiency it brings to businesses.” His most exciting projects include live coverage of the IPL in 2016, aiding relief efforts after the 2015 Nepal earthquake, and covering the 2014 Lok Sabha elections for a TV channel.
How difficult is it to be a drone pilot? Different applications require different levels of expertise. “If you’re filming, you can pick up the skills on your own,” Kulshreshtha says, “but industrial applications require training and a technical background.” Bhat of Trithi Robotics hired most of his 15 drone pilots from NCC’s aeromodelling club. “There is science involved in assessing the weather, wind speed, and getting images,” he says. “It helps to have an understanding of mechanics.”
Shobhit Jain of Bengaluru-based Skylark Drones, says there aren’t enough qualified drone pilots to meet the demand. “The demand will continue to rise year-on-year for the next five to 10 years,” he says. Skylark has a team of eight drone pilots, all of whom are engineers.
India is still in the process of framing rules for drones. It is illegal to fly them without the approval of local authorities and Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA). There are no guidelines or government-approved courses for licences. Last October, DGCA had proposed draft guidelines for UAVs.
This hasn’t prevented training schools from mushrooming across India. John Livingstone, a former Navy officer and trained drone pilot who runs Indian Institute of Drones in five locations, reports a 90% increase in enrolments in the past year. His 7-day course teaches students how to assemble and fly a drone. The company recently signed an agreement with the Engineering Council of India to train 1.5 lakh students in drone flying.