EXCLUSIVE 

“Jayant Sinha’s ‘Drone Rickshaw’ is a Possibility Only in a Smart City”

Co-founder of PigeonIS, Dewang Gala, talks using drone technology to replace manual labour and civil aviation ministry’s drone policy

Issue: 6 / 2018By Arpita KalaPhoto(s): By PigeonIS
Dewang Gala

Time is money and no one understands it better than Dewang Gala, co-founder of PigeonIS, as he brings sci-fi fantasies to life by sending drones out to work. Literally. “Our tagline says- We want to send drones to work, no more boots on the ground. For example in the mining industry, there are many instances when a person needs to go from place to place to collect data etc and drones can help fasten the process. To survey an area of 1 km square, a person can cover the distance in 2-3 days on foot while a drone takes only 20-25 minutes,” he says.

Started in 2014 with a dream of providing solutions using drones as a part of their college project, Gala has come a long way from when he participated in UAE Drone’s for Good competition. “Although we weren’t shortlisted, we got the idea that we wanted to build something that can be used for anything and everything...we still have many ideas that drones can be used for. We are still in development phase,” he says. And, he is one of the many not impressed by the civil aviation ministry’s drone policy draft.

WHAT ARE YOUR VIEWS ABOUT DRONE DRAFT SHARED BY THE GOVERNMENT?

Drone regulations are necessary, of course. However, my major concern with the regulations listed in the document is with the amount of physical application forms that will need to be filled. It would be a very tedious process and then, the 2-3 day long wait to get all the approvals. Considering the amount of work we do, it would prove to be very inconvenient to wait for so long just to get an approval to fly. There should be an online or app based something that can fasten the process. Lack of digitisation will increase the administrative burden too.

My other concern is that they mention that the drone pilot should have the same training as a manned airplane pilot despite them being completely different things. The most obvious reason being that the pilot operates from outside with the help of remote controller in a drone. They do require training because there are crash threats and safety hazards such as avoiding flight over power lines, defence areas etc but it’s not similar to the sophisticated training of a manned aircraft.

“We want to send drones to work, no more boots on the ground”

We have trained our drone pilots ourselves for the Pigeon operations since there is no government body as such to regulate or educate them. So, we make our own drones and train our own pilots. The draft also mentions setting up 12-13 odd training facilities in India, which won’t be enough and some of them are quite inconvenient distance-wise.

WHAT ABOUT THE 18 YEAR OLD AGE LIMIT?

Ideally, it should be 21 years because at eighteen, a person may still not be mature enough to take decisions in emergency situations. He/She can fly during training phases but for real-life situations someone over 21 years of age should be a better bet. There may be a few exceptions, obviously, but I feel this is a decent age.

WHAT KIND OF DRONES DOES YOUR ORGANISATION USE?

We have assembled drones for survey as well as inspection. For the former, the drone requirements include being able to fly for longer time over a larger area with good resolution while latter you need very sophisticated drone with dual purpose.

DID YOU ALWAYS KNOW THAT YOU’D BE WORKING WITH DRONES OR YOU REALISED IT AT THE COMPETITION?

We always had an idea to work in this field and we aren’t a manufacturing company but a service provider in every sector. The futuristic application of drones that we are looking at involves setting up drone stations from where drones can be sent out autonomously for various chores on their own by a man commanding them from an office.

HAS INDIA REMAINED BALANCED OR FALLEN PREY TO OVERREGULATION?

It actually depends on individual rules. In some places it’s mentioned that the flight pass needs to be submitted every now and then but it will be very inconveniencing for operators like us who have to fly daily. Like I’ve said before, not digitising the process is a huge drawback.

DO YOU THINK BAN ON FOREIGN DRONES NOT LETTING COMPETITION GROW IN THE COUNTRY?

Absence of competition is a good and a bad thing too. If there are foreign players, of course, we’ll have more things to do... more challenges and more innovations. India is not falling behind globally when it comes to drones in spite of the government regulations. I don’t mind the competition at all but that’s not my concern right now. Our operations are completely different since we serve a niche audience and enjoy monopoly here.

HAS THE SAMSUNG’S FACIAL RECOGNITION DRONE ENCOURAGING YOU TO PUSH THE ENVELOPE FOR DRONE INNOVATION?

For their patented drone, Samsung has combined machine learning with computer vision. It’s a similar algorithm to selfie cameras. But, there are some limitations too. For example in real-life situations there will always be background noise or clutter in an image, which may just make the feature difficult. In theory it is fine but in practice it may require more time to perfect the concept.

We also have a plan to set up a platform where drones will autonomously go collect the data, return to the base independently and present the report or findings. The plan is to have autonomous drone inspections. But again, the system we need for this is very high-end. Right now, in case of reports of any anomaly, a human has to go and fix the ‘problem’. In the future, a computer can pick up any issues noticed during inspections and be able to tell the difference between a defect or not from the images. But, for that the computer will have to be taught all the permutations and combinations aka artificial intelligence. It will take time, of course.

One of the problems we are facing right now is that the computer cannot distinguish between the background noises during drone inspection of a loud site and deems them an anomaly.

ARE YOU IN A HURRY TO JOIN THE DRONE PATENT WAR?

Not really, because we want to be sure about our work first. We are in a planning and researching phase right now. However, time is just right to be a drone services company in the country considering the high demand we get for our work. Right now the supply for people’s drone service requirements is way lesser as compared to the demand, so there is need for new companies.

DO YOU THINK JAYANT SINHA’S DRONE RICKSHAW IS A POSSIBILITY?

That’s possible in the next five years only if it’s a smart city developed with responsible and accurate planning. Even right now, when walking down the road and I see so many bare wires... I wonder that it may just be a problem for drone rickshaws. Drones cannot detect wires. There needs to be thorough planning to not have wires after a certain altitude or there should be specific parts of the city where drone rickshaws can fly. It should be planned very accurately. Drone autos are similar to helicopters in a way, so I think it could be possible, in that scenario.