India may soon see commercial delivery services using drones, according to Skye Air, a startup company working with some of the largest eCommerce brands. The Indian government had recently revised rules regarding unmanned aerial vehicles, permitting companies to experiment with drones for delivering products like food, medicines, and even courier parcels.
"I think in a couple of months, we will be able to see the commercial deployment of drones for delivery services," said Swapnik Jakkampudi, co-founder and CTO of Skye Air. "The new rules that have been implemented recently have removed a lot of hurdles and barriers. Before, we were in the process of getting permissions for almost one to two years. There's a lot of interest in the private industry and the state governments also."
The central government's revised rules released in August this year drastically reduced the requirements for companies to enter this field. Several certifications that were mandatory before are now not necessary. The number of forms that need to be filled was also reduced from 25 to 5. The different types of fees were lowered from 72 to 4. Changes have also been made to drone pilot requirements.
All these points to an easier environment for business. In the private sector, Skye Air has been working with India's eCommerce giants like Flipkart, Dunzo, and the logistics company Bluedart. They are also working with health care organizations like Apollo Hospitals. On the public-sector side, the company has also partnered with a regional government in Telangana.
Challenges in the delivery drone sector
India is a bit late to begin experiments with drone delivery. Many in the industry believe that the country is not even ready for delivery using drones. But other countries have attempted it, and lessons could be learned from them. Jakkampudi agrees that this is a new initiative for India, and it may take some time before different stakeholders fully understand the benefits.
"I think we're positioned well, and the commercial flights are going to start soon," Jakkampudi said. "But it's going to take one or two years for complete rollout, in terms of integration and scale of industrialization of drones, because more businesses will learn to use it, adapt, and evolve. Since this is still early days, now is an opportunity for the whole industry and different stakeholders to learn and grow."
Getting the stakeholders and even the supply chain streamlined is, in fact, one of the biggest challenges that Skye Air sees. Jakkampudi points out that since the company is not into manufacturing drones, an option to source components locally at a lower price would benefit them. More work is needed on the regulatory front as well.
"I think we would probably work with the regulations more to get a bit more clarity on things to streamline operations and business," Jakkampudi added. "But I think in general, the central government is very receptive, and they're very bullish, very aggressive, in pushing this initiative."
Skye Air's delivery drone. Credit: Skye Air
How will drone delivery work in India?
One of the biggest concerns people have about drone delivery is its feasibility in Indian cities where urban planning is not always implemented in the most ideal manner. Jakkampudi is quick to point out that drone delivery doesn't always mean last-mile delivery. Of course, some of the new residential complexes have helipads that facilitate drone operations, but the older spaces may need some improvisation.
"Going forward, we expect a lot of big societies or complexes that house 350 to 400 apartments to come up," Jakkampudi said. "Many high-rise buildings in cities like Bangalore already have a landing pad. And when talking to our clients, we're not talking just about the drone to do last-mile delivery. In many cases, it may be from hub to spoke. A person may do the last-mile delivery."
Revised rules and the local supply chain
A local supply chain would help startups like Skye Air reduce their go-to-market time and costs. However, India's manufacturing sector is still not ready in many aspects. This might change as the revised drone rules bring in more interest and investment.
"Some of our supply chain partners are from India itself," Jakkampudi said. "There are some components that we must get from abroad, like batteries, control units, etc. Ideally, it would always be good if you're able to get all of that from within the country. Fortunately, I do see the new rules kicking off demand for drones in various sectors. For example, even though we're focused on drone delivery, we get requests for drones for agriculture and mapping purposes. So definitely the new rules have created that exposure and demand and will hopefully kickstart manufacturing of components."
The interest in local manufacturing has grown strong lately because of the recent supply chain constraints that hurt the operations of many companies. Skye Air had found that importing batteries posed a significant challenge due to availability and high prices. The demand had increased the cost by up to 60 percent. Jakkampudi pointed out that high-quality international suppliers would benefit if they set up manufacturing units in the country.
Expansion plans and investment opportunities
The company's primary focus, for now, is India, but they are open to opportunities to expand overseas. Jakkampudi explained that there are several countries worldwide that would benefit from drone delivery services. Countries like the Maldives with islands spread out or where accessibility is difficult are all ideal candidates.
Given the technological advancements and regulatory progress, drones offer an attractive investment opportunity. Jakkampudi, while admitting that he is biased towards delivery drones, points out that mapping, surveying, and agriculture are other areas where drones will become more popular in the coming days. As awareness increases, we are sure to see more businesses and organizations adopting drone tech.