The Survey of India, which was chosen by the central government to digitally map all Indian villages using drones in the next four years, knows that it is a challenging task. The organisation’s in-house capability — both in terms of technology and manpower — will not be enough to achieve the target, and as a result, it’s calling on private companies in the drone ecosystem to assist it. In particular, the Survey of India is looking to release drone procurement tenders of small sizes, so that start-ups find it easy to participate in those, and to hire certain services from these companies to complete the task. This information was revealed by Surveyor General of India, Girish Kumar, during a webinar organised by industry body Drone Federation of India on Thursday.

The organisation was selected to carry out this digital mapping of all villages in India under the Svamitva scheme, which was announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in April. The organisation received necessary regulatory approvals from the civil aviation regulator earlier this month.

The claimed idea of the scheme is that these digital maps will help in providing title deeds to owners of residential properties in rural areas. The government claims that holders of land title deeds will be able to use their property for availing loans, and it will also allow to bring those properties under the tax bracket. Under the scheme, over 6 lakh villages are to be digitally mapped over four years, which means that on an average, about 1.6 lakh villages will have to be mapped every year. The pilot phase of the scheme will run for the next 6 months and aims to cover 100,000 villages in the states of Haryana, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand.

Drones which are either RTK (Real Time Kinematic) or PPK (Post-processing Kinematic) enabled are to be used for the mapping. RTK is a real-time satellite navigation technique used to enhance the precision of position data derived from satellite-based positioning systems. PTK, meanwhile, is a technique to correct location data, except in the cloud after the drone data has been captured and uploaded.

Survey of India will float small tenders so that drone start-ups can participate

“We have our systems, and the cabinet has mandated us to map every inch of the country, but the only condition is that we have to use our own drones which are to be flown by Survey of India’s pilots. We have outsourced some LiDar-related activities to two private companies, but even there, the responsibility of safety and security lies with us. The moment a drone lands on the ground, we take ownership of all the data,” Kumar said, explaining some of the conditions the Survey of India has to adhere to while carrying out the mapping. He also said that to achieve targets of this scheme, a large number of drones will be required, and that the Survey of India will soon float a tender for 200 drones.

However, the problems with such tenders, Kumar explained, is that certain conditions make it restrictive for smaller companies and startups to even participate in them. In particular, these are the conditions of having relevant past experience, and turnover. “However, since our tenders have a large volume — 100 drones might end up costing Rs 10 crore — we can not take the chance to give to a startup with the hope that it’ll be able to meet our demands”, he said.

To address this issue, the organisation is planning to float tenders with smaller volumes, and without the conditions of having past experience or certain turnover, Kumar said. “For instance, one RFP which we’ve already floated aims to procure 5 drones, and we have given full exemption to past experience and turnover criteria, so that there’s a level playing field for start-ups,” he added. He also assured the companies that a similar tender will be floated within ten days or so.

However, there can be no shortcuts on meeting the technical capability requirements, and having a drone that remains stable while in flight, Kumar warned. “We want to give you liberty, and we will have no hesitation in procuring drones from you if you meet our technical requirements. In fact, we have already eased endurance requirements, bringing down a drone from the micro category to the 2 kilogram category,” he said. The drones will also also have to be registered with the DGCA, and manufacturers will have to have proper licenses for their products to be selected, Kumar emphasised.

Hiring drone service providers also an option

Apart from procuring drones, the Survey of India is also looking to outsource certain aspects of the project to drone service providers. “Once we acquire the drones and start capturing images, one more model which we are looking at is hiring services. 1 lakh villages in 6 months is huge task. A drone will be able to cover 4-5 villages in a day, so you can imagine the number of flying days. We also have to keep in mind flying conditions with the onset of monsoon, fog etc.” Kumar said.

“A lot of people ask us why we don’t float tenders for end-to-end solutions,” Kumar said. “We have been working with drones since 3 years and have built up our own capacity for processing data. From acquiring images to processing that data, we have established high-end systems and have already purchased relevant software,” he added. But, “if required”, we’ll “definitely go for outsourcing data processing and other modules also,” said Kumar.

Use of AI/ML only if accuracy is good enough

Kumar said that the organisation is also hoping to use artificial intelligence and machine learning tech to help them expedite the process, however, the algorithmic models that the Survey of India has experimented with so far haven’t reaped desired results. “So far, we have tried with many companies and have given them opportunities also, but this much accuracy we have not been able to achieve through ML and AI,” he said.  “So if some of the start-ups think they can provide us these services, I welcome them to the Survey of India office to showcase their capabilities and we’d love to move forward with your solution. We need to move towards automation. It’s not that human beings are not required, it’s just that the task at hand is so mammoth that it’s very difficult to achieve manually,” Kumar added.

Kumar also revealed that the Panchayati Raj Ministry — which is the nodal Ministry for the scheme — has supported the Survey of India in establishing what is called a CORS Network (Continuous Operating Reference Stations), which will allow the organisation to eliminate its GPS requirements. Explaining the CORS network, Kumar said, “These will just be like mobile towers where we’re continuously transmitting the correct position of the pilot controller, which can be directly linked with the drone”. This particular technology is expected to speed up the data acquisition process, he added.

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