You’re reading it here first: At least 10 consortia, including Reliance-backed Asteria Aerospace, Nandan Nilekani-backed ShopX, Spicejet, and Google-backed Dunzo, among others have been permitted by civil aviation regulator, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation, to carry out “beyond visual line of sight” (BVLOS) drone projects in designated airspaces across the country. This is being done under an effort by the DGCA to formulate regulations around commercial BVLOS drone operations, and the regulator is looking at these projects to gain insights into such operations.

BVLOS drone operations allow for piloting a drone remotely, without having to be manoeuvred by looking at it: a crucial use case, according to multiple people from the industry.

Permitted consortia: As part of this project, the DGCA had shortlisted 13 consortia by April 2020, and had told them that they will start receiving permission letters from the regulator soon. It had received proposals from about 34 consortia in total. While consortia of Throttle Aerospace Systems and Dunzo had received their permission letters in early March, the process halted for a while owing to the COVID19 related lockdown in India, and the remaining consortia started receiving their permission letters in the last week of May.

Apart from Dunzo and Throttle Aerospace, the other consortia that have received DGCA’s permission are: Saubika Consortium, Asteria Aerospace, ShopXOmnipresent Consortium, ANRA Consortia A and B, Spicejet, Dhaksha Unmanned Systems, and ClearSky Flight Consortium. Another consortium called Sagar Defence Engineering, which was shortlisted in April, is yet to receive DGCA’s permission to start the project, the company’s cofounder confirmed to MediaNama.

Some consortia such as ShopXOmnipresent, and ANRA are planning to test delivery using drones, while some such as Saubika are looking to test surveillance for military purposes, disasters, inspections, and payload deliveries. Spicejet, meanwhile is looking test transport of cargo goods, and Asteria will experiment surveying long pipelines at crude oil refineries. The consortia participating in this project are exempt from current drone regulations, in that, apart from flying drones beyond the visual line of sight, they don’t require the no permission no take off (NPNT) clearance before each flight, or unique identification numbers (UIN). While the DGCA has relaxed most restrictions for this project, the drones that can fly as part of this still need to have a Drone Acknowledgement Number (DAN), an identifier issued by the Civil Aviation Ministry to civilian drones.

Since current drone regulations don’t allow BVLOS operations, this exercise is essentially a regulatory sandbox — an expression of interest for which was floated in May 2019 — being offered to the shortlisted consortia. The aim, as the DGCA said in the May 2019 EoI, is to create “evidence-based regulatory requirements to enable commercial BVLOS operations in the near future”. Consortia that have been offered the sandbox have to submit a proof of concept by September 2020 to a committee called BVLOS Experiment Assessment and Monitoring (BEAM), being headed by Airport Authority of India’s joint general manager, Dilip Kumar Damodaran. The committee has members from DGCA, AAI, and the Civil Aviation Ministry.

Details of consortia that have been permitted by DGCA to begin BVLOS drone projects

Every consortia that has been permitted is basically a group of drone companies and additional service providers, such as drone manufacturers (UAS), drone traffic management system developers (UTM), data collection and analysis companies, safety management experts, and supplementary service providers. We were able to ascertain the companies that are a part of 9 consortia, and have listed that breakdown below, along with the dates on which each of these consortia received DGCA’s permission letter. We don’t know the breakdown for the ClearSky consortium, but have seen a copy of the permission letter received by them, which is dated May 27. Breakdown of the remaining 9 consortia:

Spicejet

  • UAS: Throttle Aerospace
  • UTM: Involi, a Swiss-based company
  • Supplementary service provider: AEOLogic, a Noida-based IT services company
  • Data acquisition and analytics: Spicejet
  • Safety management system expert: Spicejet

Spicejet’s cargo arm, SpiceXpress had received their DGCA permission on May 21, but it was widely reported only on May 29, incidentally only days after some domestic flights started operations in India. We have seen a copy of SpiceXpress’ approval letter. The consortium is planning to experiment with transportation of goods, and has been designated an airspace in Jewar, in Greater Noida, according to Nagendran Kandasamy, founder of Throttle Aerospace Systems, that is providing Spicejet the drones.

Dunzo Air Consortium

  • UAS: Throttle Aerospace Systems
  • UTM: Airmap, a US-based software company
  • Supplementary service provider: Curl Analytics (a Bengaluru-based company working on AI, and blockchain)
  • Data acquisition and analysis: Curl Analytics
  • Safety management system expert: Unknown

The information about Dunzo’s consortium was confirmed by multiple sources directly involved in this project, but when we reached out to the company for more information, it declined to offer us a comment. We have also emailed them to confirm if these specific companies are indeed a part of its consortium, and are awaiting a response. We couldn’t ascertain the airspace that has been designated to Dunzo, except that it is somewhere “in and around Bengaluru” according to a source. Multiple sources also said that the Google-backed company is primarily looking at testing delivering parcels, given that it’s essentially a hyperlocal delivery service, and a BVLOS drone can potentially help it in last mile connectivity.

Asteria Aerospace

  • UAS: Asteria
  • UTM: Airmap
  • Supplementary service provider: Asteria and Airmap
  • Data acquisition and analysis: Asteria and another external company which the company’s co-founder Neel Mehta did not reveal
  • Safety management system: Aviation Safety Management Society Of India, a Delhi-based organisation dealing with safety of aviation operations, and is largely funded by donations, grants or membership fees.

The consortium led by Reliance-backed Asteria Aerospace has been allowed to operate in an airspace located “about 2 hours from Bengaluru”, the company’s co-founder Neel Mehta told us. It received DGCA’s permission on May 21. Mehta said that they will experiment surveying long pipelines, railways, and roadways, among other things. He claimed that they will test 303 different scenarios during their project, which they aim to begin by July.

ShopXOmnipresent Consortium

  • UAS: Omnipresent RobotTech
  • UTM: Unknown, as Omnipresent’s COO Manish Piplani declined to reveal their UTM despite multiple requests
  • Supplementary service provider: Omnipresent RobotTech
  • Data acquisition and analysis: Omnipresent RobotTech
  • Safety management system expert: Former Indian Air Force personnel Wg Cdr Anand Pethia, who is also the co-founder of Omnipresent RobotTech

This consortium received the permission from DGCA on May 27, and has been designated an airspace in Madhya Pradesh. Given the composition of the consortium, we asked Piplani as to what role Nandan Nilekani-backed ShopX had in the operations, and he said that they’ll primarily provide the financial assistance to Omnipresent for conducting this project. ShopX is also looking to pilot B2B drone deliveries during this project.

Throttle Aerospace Systems

  • UAS: Throttle Aerospace Systems
  • UTM: Involi
  • Supplementary Service Provider: Honeywell Aerospace
  • Data acquisition and analysis: Honeywell Aerospace
  • Safety Management System Expert: Honeywell Aerospace

This consortium has been allowed to operate in a designated airspace in Bengaluru’s Gauribidanur. The company’s founder Nagendran Kandasamy told MediaNama that they had presented their idea to the BEAM committee in December last year, and had received DGCA’s approval letter on March 17, 2020. MediaNama has seen a copy of the letter. Kandasamy said that their UTM provider, Involi, will offer the drone pilot a dashboard to see live footage from the drone’s camera, population density of the area over which a drone’s flying, and information about any aircraft that might be scheduled to fly over that particular airspace any given time.

Saubika Consortium

  • UAS: Drone Aerospace Systems and Germany-based Wingcopter. However, Drone Aerospace System’s Kishore Jonnalagadda told us that Wingcopter’s participation seems unlikely given that the company has fixed wing drones, which aren’t allowed to fly in India, not even under these exemptions.
  • UTM: Avianco, a Bengaluru-based software services company
  • Supplementary service provider: INDrone Aero Systems
  • Data acquisition and analysis: INDrone Aero Systems
  • Safety management system: A former Indian Air Force and DRDO personnel, who was also a part of the team that developed DRDO’s Rustom drone, a military grade fixed wing drone. INDrone’s co-founder Anurag Joshi did not reveal the name of this person.

Saubika is primarily planning to test military uses of remote drones, and plans to gather information from multiple drones onto a single screen in real-time, Joshi said, highlighting that they’ll test the maximum range from where drone footage can be relayed to a control centre. It also intends to survey pipelines. It has been approved to fly over an airspace in Andhra Pradesh’s Puttaparthi, and had received DGCA’s permission letter on May 21, Jonnalagadda said. Saubika will start ground visits after the lockdown ends, and is planning to start its project by the third week of June, Joshi said.

ANRA (Consortia A and B)

  • UAS: ANRA Technologies will begin the project along with mutliple drone manufacturers and service providers, but ANRA Technologies’  India business head Mitul Kumar, did not reveal the names of those companies despite multiple requests.
  • The UTM, supplementary service provider, data acquisition and analysis, and safety management system is all being handled by ANRA itself for both the consortia, according to Kumar. “Other consortium partners” will assist ANRA Technologies in this, but Kumar did not reveal who these partners are.

The consortia had received DGCA’s permission letter on May 21, and has been designated 2 airspaces, one in Punjab and one in Uttar Pradesh, Kumar said. Consortia A will focus on food delivery, and Consortia B will focus on medicine delivery, he said. ANRA Technologies is a US-based company and has an office in Noida as well.

Dhaksha Unmanned Systems

  • UAS: Dhaksha Unmanned Systems
  • UTM: Airmap
  • Supplementary service provider: Honeywell Aerospace and Airmap
  • Data acquisition and analysis: Honeywell Aerospace
  • Safety management system expert: Honeywell Aerospace and Airmap

Dhaksha had received their permission letter on May 20, and has been designated an airspace somewhere in Tamil Nadu, Vasanthraj, who’s heading the project for the consortium said. An email seeking more details sent to the company remained unanswered at the time of publication.

It’s clear from this breakdown that very few consortia are mutually exclusive of each other. Most of them have common partners, with Airmap and Honeywell’s services being used by several consortia. It is also worth noting that companies can use the 2.4 GHz or 5.8 GHz unlicensed radio frequency bands to establish contact between the drone and the traffic management system. Alternatively, they can also rely on LTE connectivity for the same, although for that, they would have to tie up with a telecom provider.

DGCA was sceptical about several airspaces, UTM policy planned

The DGCA had held a two day pilot training course in early February at Hyderabad’s Begumpet airport, and invited representatives from over 30 consortia to explain the various safety standards that are to be followed during the project, multiple people who attended the course told MediaNama. 2 people from each consortium had to report at the course, where their background and expertise was also assessed by DGCA officials, sources said. We also learnt that most consortia found it hard to settle on an airspace, owing to DGCA’s reservations over safety and security. Sources said that the DGCA wanted to designate airspaces far away from any major airport, and with low population density, and for several consortia, about 4-5 proposed airspaces were rejected.

However, since most BVLOS operations are targeted towards use in urban areas, especially delivery of essential goods, the Civil Aviation Ministry is working on a UTM policy in an effort to standardise UTMs used by BVLOS drones, multiple industry sources, and one government source confirmed to MediaNama. A UTM is essentially an air traffic management system (similar to airplanes) for drones, except that the process is automated, Smit Shah, director of partnerships at industry body Drone Federation of India explained. It can detect real-time location of a drone, and has anti-collision warning systems so that drones flying in the same airspace can communicate with each other, he said.

*Update at 1:13 pm: Updated with ANRA’s statement on their drone partners.
*Update at 7:32: Changed ANRA to ANRA Technologies following the company’s request.