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Technological innovation is the basis of development in our society. From the Green Revolution that industrialized our food production to the establishment of a world-class IT sector, modernization has always helped us overcome obstacles. Today, the drone industry is on the cusp of another big economic boom in the country. The government aims to make India a global drone hub by 2030. To achieve this important vision, it is important to develop our existing indigenous drone technology.
Drones have gone beyond military surveillance tools and have taken over valuable industrial assets. Mining, infrastructure, forest conservation and many sectors have started using drone solutions to increase their productivity and efficiency. For example, drone data has made mining significantly safer and redefined its lifetime ROI. In the construction industry, drones are helping to create digital twins, monitor progress, and track assets. Similarly, drone technology has also left its mark in agriculture, disaster management and urban and rural development.
However, drone adoption is only half the way to the integration of this technology. The rest comes from investment in R&D and continuous innovation. Modern-day drones have sufficient autonomy to take off, land, avoid certain types of obstacles, follow a pre-determined flight path, and monitor their own flight systems. But, moving forward we should aim to reach a stage of autonomy where drones can analyze and evaluate real-world scenarios and adjust their mission parameters completely devoid of human intervention.
Reaching such advanced stages of autonomy requires continued innovation and this is happening rapidly globally. According to a report by Mathis & Squire, 4,876 patents were granted for drones worldwide in 2021. This was an increase of 39% from 2020. However, two-thirds of these patents belong to Chinese research institutions, followed by the US. If we truly intend to lead the world in terms of autonomous drones and capture the $20 billion market, we cannot afford to develop indigenous drone technology. Currently, we have over 200 drone startups and one of the youngest workforces in the country. Thus, our potential to innovate and lead in this area is very high.
Current achievements in drone technology represent only a fraction of their untapped potential. Many important drone applications are unexplored and have not yet been considered. A key catalyst for fully realizing this potential lies in the level of intelligence and autonomy that can be integrated into the drone’s avionics.
But this raises a particularly important question, what stage of autonomy are we currently at and how can it actually help us become a global drone hub? To answer this we must first understand the different stages of autonomy.
Where autonomous drones can take us
The most important step is to understand our current technological state. Drones or UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) can be classified into 6 levels of autonomy. Starting from Level 0 where the drone is completely controlled by a pilot, to Level 5 where drones can use autonomous learning systems to plan and modify their flight plans. Currently, we are between Levels 2 and 3 of autonomy where pilots are required to plan, monitor, and ensure safe operations.
Check out this breakdown of autonomy levels for a clearer picture:
level 0 (Manual Control) – At this stage, the drone is completely under manual control by a human operator. Every aspect of the flight, from takeoff to landing and all maneuvers, is controlled by the operator in real time.
level 1 (Remote Control) – Drones at this level can be flown remotely, but may have some degree of automation for tasks such as altitude and position holding. However, most tasks still require direct human control. For example, it may include features such as gyroscopic stabilization, GPS-assisted navigation, and basic flight modes such as altitude hold.
level 2 (Flight Assisted) – Drones in this category have more advanced automation features. They can perform functions such as GPS-based waypoint navigation and the ability to follow pre-programmed flight paths. While a human operator is still required for mission planning and observation, drones can perform some tasks autonomously.
level 3 (Partial autonomy) – Drones with conditional autonomy can operate autonomously within certain predefined parameters and conditions. They can handle more complex tasks and adapt to changing environmental conditions, but require human operators to monitor and intervene if necessary.
level 4 (High Autonomy) – Drones at this level can operate autonomously in most situations without constant human supervision. They have advanced obstacle avoidance and can handle dynamic scenarios to a great extent. However, human operators are still needed to make high-level decisions and pursue autonomous actions when needed.
level 5 (Full Autonomy) – At this level, drones are completely autonomous and capable of making complex decisions independently, without human intervention. They have advanced sensors, artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities, allowing them to function in a wide range of environments and scenarios with minimal or no human supervision.
Beyond the level of individual autonomy of each drone, even greater possibilities emerge when multiple autonomous drones collaborate to achieve a common task. This collective effort is called herd autonomy. Each drone within the swarm can have its own level of autonomy, and they communicate with each other to accomplish their objectives.
Over the past decade, basic drone technology has evolved significantly, providing reliable flight capabilities for small to medium-scale operations. However, expanding the boundaries of what can be achieved with drones will largely depend on the extent to which autonomous features can be reliably integrated into future drone technology.
Imagine fully automated drones operating seamlessly in various fields. Imagine them surveying vast agricultural fields, monitoring critical infrastructure, assisting in search and rescue operations, and even performing last mile delivery of goods and services without human intervention. Also providing facilities. These drones can truly adapt to a wide range of environments and conditions to accomplish any operation.
What will it take to build a Level 5 autonomous drone?
Advances in artificial intelligence, computer vision, and sensor technology are constantly pushing the boundaries of drone autonomy, expanding their potential use across a variety of industries.
Furthermore, achieving high levels of autonomy in the true sense is possible only through vertical-specific efforts. General purpose drone solutions use off-the-shelf components for a specific purpose. This leaves little room for new inventions. However, if you develop domain-specific technology, it helps to build a robust set of IPs.
It is not reasonable to expect advanced sensors, proprietary algorithms, and processing capabilities in an off-the-shelf drone. Thus, for building vertical-specific autonomous drones, a lot of resources need to be directed towards R&D of technologies like MEMS, GNSS, RF, image processing, power systems, propulsion systems, control systems, processing units and much more. Is required.
The second and arguably the most important component of accelerating this process is to enrich our existing and upcoming workforce. It is essential to upgrade the current workforce with the necessary skills to contribute to this emerging industry. Also, introducing drone technology into educational institutions can help develop the next generation of innovators.
In the Indian context, our emphasis seems to be primarily on enhancing the skills of drone operators. However, to realize the vision of becoming a global hub for drone technology, it is more important to develop a group of creative thinkers and engineers with specialized knowledge in drone technology. Our knowledge-building efforts should include areas such as software engineering, embedded systems, hardware development, and systems engineering. After all, a great nation cannot be built by borrowed technology.
Let’s try to draw an analogy between drone technology and the automotive industry. Often, we hear people saying that self-driving cars cannot succeed in India due to poor road infrastructure and adverse traffic conditions. Luckily, the same logic doesn’t apply to drone technology, thanks to a brand new extended vertical dimension available to navigating unmanned aerial vehicles. This presents a huge opportunity that also negates the notion that India cannot make significant progress in drone technology as fast as the rest of the world. The determining factor will largely be how fast we can continue to innovate in key aspects of drone technology, particularly those that enhance its intelligence and autonomy.
This industry is growing rapidly. Smarter and autonomous drones will open up a box of possibilities. Be it fighting climate change, building better integrated cities, or taking our economy to the next level, the drone revolution is at our doorstep. It is up to us to give it the right direction.