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India to see limited benefit of drones if policy is not codified soon, says Harrison Wolf of WEF

Manu Kaushik     October 3, 2019

The regulations and usage of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones have been a topic of global discussion following the recent incidents at the Gatwick airport and Saudi Aramco's facilities that involved drones. The need to have robust technologies such as remote identification and counter-drone techniques has been growing louder ever since. In an interaction with Business Today, Harrison Wolf, lead (Drones and Tomorrow's Airspace) at the World Economic Forum (WEF) talks about the preparedness of India in terms of UAV policy and global scenario. Edited excerpts:

Business Today: Where do you think India stands in terms of preparedness as far as policy on UAV regulation is concerned?

Harrison Wolf: India is well positioned to embrace and support a myriad uses of drones that could help communities tremendously. Whether that is in health supply chain, which is the focus of a report we are developing for later in the year, or in agriculture, drones are ready to drive major impact. With the government considering a new policy that would enable beyond visual line of sight operations (BVLOS) and autonomous flight, the time is right for the drone technology to flourish. If the government does not codify CAR2.0 (civil aviation regulations 2.0), we will continue to see limited benefit from drones, like many other countries.

BT: What are new trends emerging in the global airspace?

Wolf: Removing anonymity from drone flights and providing integration into the broader airspace are the two most important trends in the airspace today. As a result of the incidents at Gatwick and in Saudi Arabia, governments are feeling the need to be able to identify any drone at any time. Technologies like unmanned traffic management, remote identification, and counter-drone technologies have become the latest topics today.

BT: Globally, on the civil side, what sectors are the big and early adopters of drones?

Wolf: Healthy supply chains, precision agriculture, mining and mineral extraction, construction and infrastructure monitoring, environmental monitoring, real estate, and accident and incident investigation are the biggest early adopters of drones.

Most importantly for all early adopters is access to airspace. The reason healthcare supply chains in India have not been able to integrate drones is because the regulations do not make it easy to do so. The earliest adopters (photography, inspections, monitoring) were permissible under the current regulations. Without a regulatory environment that enables drones, adoption is impossible.

The early adopters have seen success where the benefits have not been unique about the drone providing something novel but as a tool that accelerates efficiencies or amplifies ongoing work. In mining and minerals, companies such as Tata Group have seen the use of drones for quantifying extracted minerals or for analysing impact on surrounding areas using metrics already in need by the industry.

The construction and infrastructure monitoring always needed to take place but it was difficult and personnel intensive, requiring individuals to be put in dangerous position simply to inspect installations; with a drone it is safer, faster, easier and therefore more cost effective. In precision agriculture, we have seen that quickly a drone can analyse the health of crops or make more effective the use of water on fields, thereby enabling better water usage and protection from pests that is important for feeding populations.

BT: How do you think social sector can benefit from the proliferation of UAV industry?

Wolf: The social sector can use drones to help track migrations of displaced peoples, promote greater understanding of environmental concerns through aerial monitoring and multispectral imaging, and by including drone technologies such as AI (artificial intelligence), data science, and photogrammetry in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education.

BT: Do you think the application of drones in the delivery of products is possible at some point in future?

Wolf: Absolutely. We are seeing today the successful implementation of drones for delivering medical products in places such as Rwanda, Ghana, Switzerland, China, and Indonesia. As the technology matures and governments become more comfortable with overseeing the operations, I fully expect consumer products to be delivered by drone at an impressive rate. In the US and Australia, for example, Wing - an Alphabet company - is already beginning to deliver packages, over-the-counter medicines and fast food.

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