Eye In The Sky – Business Line – 15-Nov-2014

November 15, 2014 - Uncategorized

 

 

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are taking to the Indian landscape in various roles — from wedding photography to police surveillance and crowd management

When filmmaker Rahat Kulshreshtha was shooting a music video for singer Shreya Singhal last year, he wanted to take a few aerial shots over the Noida Expressway on the outskirts of Delhi. The only way to do it was to hire a helicopter and seek regulatory permissions for its use. Yet, shot from a minimum of 2,000 feet, the footage would not have been up to the mark. It was then that he found out about unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) being used in the US for taking aerial shots from less-distant heights. He bought one from there for his own venture.

UAVs are defined as vehicles installed with avionics that can either fly autonomously or by using the commands from the base. The common person perhaps knows them better as drones, because of the military connotations.

However, UAVs can be used for various civilian purposes, such as film productions, wedding photography, surveillance and highrise real estate projects.

Kulshreshtha teamed up with Gaurav Mehta and Tanuj Bhojwani, two batchmates at Ashoka University. They set up Quidich earlier this year — a Delhi-based firm that provides aerial images and videos through UAVs.

Three friends from Mumbai’s Veermata Jijabai Technological Institute (VJTI) are also working overtime to tap this growing market for UAVs, in Navi Mumbai, the satellite city of India’s financial capital. Aniket Tatipamula, Neeraj Waghchaure and Shinil Shekhar successfully created a UAV, after a few failed attempts, in their college lab in 2012. In October 2013, the trio set up Airpix, a professional aerial photography and video production company, whose client list includes real estate developers, town planners, the police, government departments and even media houses.

Another Navi Mumbai-based start-up, idea-Forge — brainchild of students at IIT-Bombay — offers services only to the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and paramilitary and security forces. Their clients include National Security Guard, Indo-Tibetan Border Police, National Disaster Response Force and Delhi Police. “It is a really hot market right now. Over the last few years, there has been a consistent annual growth of 70 to 80 per cent,” says Deshraj Singh, head of marketing and sales at ideaForge.

Kulshreshtha agrees: “In less than one year since we started, Quidich has already broken even and we are profitable. The market is growing rapidly.” Quidich’s first assignment was election coverage with a leading news channel. “We travelled with them for 40 days, our UAVs following their bus. The interviews with politicians were also captured with our drones. We got a lot of mileage from that.” Soon, Quidich was flooded with clients.

Farewell, copters

So what are the benefits of UAVs? For starters, they are a cost-effective alternative to helicopters. While choppers can be used for everything — from security surveillance to film and music production — they come with a huge price tag. Charges for hiring a helicopter range from ₹1 lakh to ₹2 lakh an hour, depending on the use. In contrast, a drone can be hired for eight to 10 hours from a starting price of ₹1 lakh to ₹1.5 lakh and customised to requirements. For filming, even if a shot has to be re-taken, a drone can be brought down, its battery changed and sent back again. “Shooting with a helicopter is time-consuming and a pain,” says Kulshreshtha. Moreover, helicopters are not allowed to fly below a certain height, making it difficult to take close-up shots. An average drone rental package includes 10 batteries, which are more than enough for a day-long shoot.

More importantly, says Kulshreshtha, the ease of permissions makes drones a better option, as only the local police needs to be informed. Helicopters require various approvals, at least a week in advance. But since people have been using drones without regulation, they may interfere with flight paths at higher altitudes, posing security risks. To check that, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) has banned the use of drones till it finalises guidelines on their use.

However, companies like Quidich and Airpix can seek permission from DGCA and other authorities for using drones under 300 feet. “This is free air space and any object at this altitude does not interfere with routine flight paths,” says Kulshreshtha.

View from a home

While UAVs might be used to take aerial shots of actors and actresses, Airpix uses it in the real estate sector as well. It bagged its first project from Haware Builders in Mumbai’s suburban Thane early this year. “The view from a flat is the USP of high-rise buildings. We use drones to capture the view, which can leverage flat sales,” says Shekhar. So, even before the construction commences, Airpix drones can create a virtual view from a flat on any floor. And it has done this for marquee names, including Lodha Developers, Shapoorji Pallonji, K Raheja Corp and Omkar Realtors.

Airpix works with its clients on a project basis. “A definitive cost cannot be reached since we customise the drone as per the final application with different kinds of performances and payloads,” says Shekhar. The physics of the equipment and electronics change with project needs. So for real estate projects, UAVs have to be fitted with high-resolution cameras to provide images that can be blown up. And for aerial photography of sports events, the equipment’s mobility and manoeuvrability have to be good.

With growing demand, Airpix has expanded from one to six UAVs in less than a year; Quidich has gone from one to seven. These players are now assembling their own UAVs rather than buying them from manufacturers.

The parts are flown in from other countries, assembled and customised as per requirement. Quidich gets its motors from China, bodies from Belgium and other parts from the US. “We put them together based on how much weight it has to lift,” says Kulshreshtha.

So while a UAV for lifting compact and lightweight Go-Pro cameras can cost ₹2 lakh, the one for lifting film cameras that weigh 5-8kg can cost up to ₹20 lakh.

Higher and brighter

Photographer Jasmer Singh has used Quidich drones fitted with cameras to shoot stills for industrial locations as well as resorts. “The essential advantage is that UAVs take cameras to places where we cannot take them otherwise. And the quality of images is good too.” He can also see the display in real time and adjust aperture, shutter speed, while sitting in front of a computer. In most cases, UAVs produce sharp images from a distance of 500 metres to a kilometre. This also makes it suitable for sports events; Airpix provided aerial coverage for a Brazilian TV series Kayak, which covers white-water rafting in various countries. “We did the aerial view shooting for their Nepal edition. It helps capture the thrill and action better,” he adds.

Gasha Aeri Alawani, Marketing Motorsports at Volkswagen India agrees. She says her company first used UAVs in 2013. This year too we will take their services to cover our VW Polo-RCup. In circuit racing (such as the Buddh International circuit, Greater Noida), through a camera installed on UAVs, we can capture what a handheld-camera cannot. They can also follow the track well.” She does, however, find the cost on the higher side. Alawani believes that with the increase in competition, prices are likely to come down and the quality of the product will improve.

Airpix, for example, is already staying away from aerial wedding photography as that market is getting commoditised. Shekhar says his firm has done four wedding assignments, but will stop at that. “There is no value addition in those services. We are consciously trying to stay away from this segment as drones are just complementing other mediums.”

Ditto for Quidich. “In Delhi, anybody can buy a drone for ₹2 lakh for wedding photography. That is not a particularly lucrative market,” says Kulshreshtha.

Not surprisingly, drones can be bought for as little as ₹50,000 in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk. In Khan Market, the base price can go up to ₹1 lakh. But they are mostly imported from China.

And it is these players that are increasing the competition in the UAV space.

Both Shekhar and Kulshreshtha agree that competition will bring rentals down. But the serious players are working on specialised verticals and will offer more data-based analytical services. ideaForge, for example, has created a niche by working only with security forces. “With UAVs, you can’t just issue a tender and ask for the lowest bidder.

Every single requirement needs to be specified and it has to be customised,” says Singh of ideaForge.

Shekhar should know. His firm worked on a project with the Mumbai police on Ambedkar Jayanti. For a gathering held at Shivaji Park, the police wanted to monitor crowds from a vantage point and, in case of a mishap, identify the spot as soon as possible. “We used a high-zoom camera to close in on places where mishaps might occur, and a high-definition camera to capture data,” he says.

Quidich has also developed UAV software for agriculture surveys, which will help measure crop density and quality, soil conditions, and so on. “We can put thermal cameras to monitor this. We are also working on a system for disaster management,” says Kulshreshtha.

Quidich also has engineers on board to work on analytics and is offering a top-end UAV of around ₹30 lakh. With major companies like Amazon entering the UAV space with Amazon Prime Air, and Facebook looking into solarpowered UAVs by 2015, clearly it is the technology of the future.

Shekhar at Airpix says, “We want to grow as a technology company, which provides real solutions to real problems.”

The Hindu Business Line

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