At the premier biennale air show and exhibition, Aero India 2019, typical visitor interest centers around the spectacular air displays. The aerobatic feats of the shiny metal birds can draw your breath away. But alongside crowd-pulling pavilions and aerial stunts are the slew of initiatives undertaken by the Defence Ministry to promote innovation in the field of aerospace. The Defence India StartUp Challenge is one such by the Defence Innovation Organization in association with Atal Innovation Mission which, over the last couple of years, has aimed at supporting startups and innovators to create prototypes and commercialize products in the area of national defence and security. In this year’s edition of the aero show however, the Ministry of Defence in association with the Drone Federation of India introduced a new challenge known as the Drone Olympics.
Drone Olympics 2019
Conducted between 18 – 21 February 2019, this contest presented three different challenges: The Surveillance Challenge, Supply Drop/Delivery Challenge and Drone Swarm/Formation challenge. CIE-incubated, Hyderabad-based drone technology company THANOS won the Supply Drop Challenge wherein a weight of 2 Kg payload was required to be delivered autonomously (without any operator inputs) over a travel distance of 2 Kms. The aim of the challenge was to identify startups/innovators in India with capabilities that can potentially be leveraged for several critical applications such as Medicine and Organ Delivery, Last Mile Connectivity, Disaster Relief Management among others. Speaking about the challenge, founder of Thanos, Pradeep Palleli says, “As a bootstrapped hardware startup, our financial resources are extremely constrained. We wanted to participate in a challenge that costs us the least and takes the least amount of time to build and test. Having expertise in Heavy Payloads and High Endurance, Supply Drop Challenge was the obvious choice for us. We also wanted to build something that might take us a little closer towards having a market ready product for the future.” The team comprising of the Co-Founder/CTO Prathyush Akepati and Technical Engineer Suman Sekhar quickly put together the prototype reusing components from other drones they had and built the prototype in a span of just 2 days.
Participants at the challenge included some of the best drone companies and drone/robotics research labs in the country. Apart from the description of the challenge on the Aero India Website, the actual competition had a much more comprehensive method of evaluating participants. “We were evaluated on a number of parameters that included weight of the drone, availability of necessary safety features on the drone, frequency of operation, accuracy of drone landing/payload delivery location and so on. There were also multiple rounds of testing/challenges which tested the reliability/strength of certain mechanical fixtures of our drone.” remarks Pradeep. The Thanos team got the highest score of 49/50 securing the first place.
Boot-strapped Thanos made its debut in the agricultural space for spraying, aerial surveillance as well as mapping. Since then, the team has added drone repairs and designing of battery packs to their repertoire. The company also recently won a grant to develop a High Endurance Multicopter that has immense potential for certain Govt. as well as consumer applications. Speaking of their plans, Pradeep says, “We are trying to position ourselves as a Drone-Technology company and intend to focus mainly on Manufacturing and Product Service two Years from now. Application-based services such as Agricultural Spraying, Aerial Surveying etc. will still be a part of our revenue model but we need to test which one has a higher growth potential.” Based on their win at the Drone Olympics, the company has begun getting enquiries from the Indian Army and other entities for Payload Delivery drones. According to Pradeep, they are already working on improving their prototype to make it a commercial version. Apart from this, the company is betting big on the drone repairs and servicing space and plans on carving a niche for themselves. “While there are already 1000s of drones (mostly imported) in India, there is no major service provider for repairs of the same. The drone population will grow by a high order of magnitude in the next 2-3 years alone once the Govt. Drone Programme kicks off in a full-fledged manner.” signs off Pradeep.