The Tata Group is likely to join the likes of Silicon Valley startup Zipline and domestic tech companies Swiggy, Zomato, ShopX, who are seeking certification from the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) to conduct experiments for using unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, commercially.
Several players have already applied to conduct such experiments, and more are expected as the DGCA recently extended the deadline for applications to July 10.
The Tatas are developing drones for specific applications across group companies, sources in the know said. Hyperlocal delivery startup Dunzo and logistics firm Delhivery are also believed to have expressed interest to partner with drone operators, multiple sources close to the development said.
The Tatas see the DGCA’s call to showcase beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) drones as a way to kick-start its drone solutions. ET could not independently ascertain the exact use-case for the drone experiment that the Tatas have applied for or whether it had entered through a consortium.
The Tata Group, under erstwhile chief technology officer Gopichand Katragadda, had undertaken commercial tests of crop spraying using drones and was looking for regulatory clarity to do that.
When contacted, a Tata Group spokesperson told ET in an email, “We do not wish to comment on this story.”
The DGCA’s call for BVLOS drone experiments has found a wide variety of takers, including players in e-commerce, food delivery, medical essentials delivery and infrastructure surveillance.
Apart from the Tatas, the other interesting application has come from Zipline, a Silicon Valley-based company valued at $1.2 billion and one of the few drone delivery firms to run commercial operations. Zipline currently does around 500 deliveries a day in Ghana and Rwanda, where it ferries blood packets and vaccines to remote healthcare centres.
“We submitted a proposal to the DGCA experiment EOI, with the Government of Telangana,” said Assad Jourban, who heads business development at Zipline. “To start operating more widely, we’re ready, but we will do that only once we have signed service agreements with States, which we hope to have by the end of this year.”
Another player in the rural medical delivery space, RedWing, too has applied to be a part of the DGCA’s experiment stage. The company rolled out its service commercially in Papua New Guinea earlier this year in partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the US government.
On the consumer side, companies such as Swiggy and Zomato are looking to test drone deliveries to help food reach customers faster. Both the firms have applied for the DGCA clearance — Zomato on its own after acquiring startup TechEagle last year and Swiggy through an agreement with a consortium.
“In terms of last-mile logistics, drones are already more cost-efficient than a human transporting something. It’s no more a cost equation, it’s just that the regulatory, safety and reliability bits need to fall in place,” said Tanuj Bhojwani, fellow at think tank iSPIRT.
Experts, however, say regulators will take longer to get comfortable with the idea of flying drones commercially in densely populated cities. Applications in rural and remote areas, in mines, infrastructure projects and inspection of high-tension electricity wires could happen sooner, largely due to pressure on the government to reduce costs and monitor progress.
Amit Sharma, founder and CEO of ShopX, which has partnered with Omnipresent Robotics for its drone solution, says B2B deliveries could be the first step to letting drones fly in cities. Keeping a close control on take-off and drop zones, and mapping out flight paths in advance to prove the safety of the service would be key, he says.