How to train your drone: Pro cams & other tools for tech utopia

How to train your drone: Pro cams & other tools for tech utopia

By SANSHEY BISWAS | | 24 October, 2015
A Quidich drone filming an event.

Quidich is a company that specialises in using drones to improve, even redefine, filming, photography, live sports, industrial surveys, agriculture, real estate, journalism and emergency response, and they have over 4,000 hours of flight time for 180 projects in 120 cities with the help of 24 independent UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) under their belt. Guardain20 talks to their CTO, Tanuj Bhojwani, about the company’s journey and aspirations.

Q. How was Quidich conceived?

A. Rahat Kulshreshtha (CEO), Gaurav Mehta (Chief Business Officer) and I were still in our post-graduate programmes in February last year, when we got our hands on these fairly new drones. We started experimenting with what we could do with them in the video sector. We realised that drones could help us with film shots that would have otherwise been very expensive. The rentals for hiring a chopper to shoot the footage is roughly the price of a drone. So the technology was promising and we started with news. One of the first assignments we got was a 40-day coverage of the buildup to the elections. The drones allowed us to do things that weren’t otherwise possible. They weren’t just assisting but also changing how things are done in events, marketing, advertising. But now we’re more focused on

Q. Tell us about the kind of work Quidich does.

A. We’ve been meeting people in mining, agriculture and other industries, and the response is the same. If you can pull off what you claim, it radically changes the way they are solving or dealing with problems so far, which we have demonstrated in pilots and trials.

Consider Project Kisaan...  we’ve been working in parallel and on something similar to it in terms of crop insurance. Crop cutting evaluation is a tedious manual task that involves an individual assigned by the district collector to find the crops, cut and weigh them in remote locations. This has to be repeated every season throughout the year. This data takes about eight months to process, by which two seasons have passed and the farmer hasn’t received any help to recover for the upcoming season.

Remote sensing: both satellites and drones can help you understand crop patterns and predictions. The data can be used as an absolute. The government is spending on insurances, but they get stuck... to smoothen out the process, all you need is to know how to use a drone, thus eliminating the people in the middle and get absolute data that is recorded for crosschecking to stop malpractices like
false claims.

In mining, the government is entitled to royalty, but they have no clue how much is actually being mined. If a particular area is given, the government gets to claim royalty for the produce from it. But if you walk away from that area and mine closeby, you don’t pay the royalty, and when the surveyor comes, ask him to turn a blind eye. Currently, there is no way to keep a check on it. With drones, you can see the mine, and measure accurately with footage that can be made available publicly. The drone technology brings a transparency that otherwise wouldn’t be possible. And our job is to make it available.  

Q. How do you plan to get these features adopted, given that the regulations aren’t in your favour?

A. With anything new, there is a period of customer education — why is it better and how it can be incorporated into your daily operations. Big businesses find it difficult to make a change. It takes a certain mindset and leadership. We talk to the company and show them that it’s accurate and transparent, thus adding value to them.

The October memo regarding drone regulations is when the problem started. There were no laws that prohibited or regulated drone usage. Regulation is important because there are concerns, but policy makers aren’t working fast enough. I’ve filed RTIs to which responses have been less than unsatisfactory. The tech and implications are well beyond the scope of the authorities being asked to make the policies.

But any new tech will have teething issues. Uber is facing them as well. It’s about how we respond. Uber can, because they’re big but we aren’t quite there yet.

The government needs to realise they’re inhibiting progress. If you’re really going to say “Make in India”, come manufacture here, invest in our businesses, you shouldn’t stop general technological solutions to problems that are troubling the country. Drones are really helpful in monitoring large areas and collect data spread across diverse geography. I don’t see a better place than this country to take advantage of that. My only hope is that, at some point, sense will prevail. It’s been a year and there is no sign of a plan or timeline. People will give up hope soon, but that might change with increase in players like Amazon, Google, Facebook using drones for projects.

Q. When do you think drones will be used widely?

A. It depends. There are companies that have incorporated them well. The process, however, is slow because of unclear regulations. Non-government bodies are the ones prohibited from using them. So we’re approaching the public companies. The memo says non-government bodies require permission but they won’t give it in writing that government bodies can fly with permissions. That’s how the agricultural project got roadblocked because of permissions not coming through.

Q. Does it bother you that progress is slow even though you’re spending so much time and effort?

A. Wasted effort something you learn from. We’ll keep working on them and pitching them. Eventually, if we come to a point where we don’t foresee a solution in India, we’ll happily take all our work and move to the next one. This might be the fate of a lot of technology in the country if this is the attitude from the government... Uber might feel like shutting down. The city’s transport system, which has shifted from autos extorting you to being reasonable and ready to go by metre, [will go back to what it was before]. The drivers who are making good money will have to look elsewhere.

Q. How’s business been in the entertainment segment?

A. Business has been good because we’re consistently delivering quality and having fun at it. The focus, however, has shifter entirely. We’re no longer a drone video company. We still have that division, but for a select set of clients who understand and pay for quality. It’s not drones that we’re selling, it’s the pilots and their skill and having the peace of mind that professionals are shooting. I’m not the guy you want to hire for a wedding. We’re shifting to newer verticals with more revenue and challenges.

Q. How do you stay on top of technological advances?

A. We’re young. There’s nothing that I can take all the credit for. Everything comes from learning and talking to people on the internet. Every time we have a problem, we Google. No one taught me drone technology in college. It’s something you pick up and learn from forums and posts, and when it’s your turn, you do the same. We’ve been doing new things regularly. After conducting a pilot to prove that we can accomplish a task, it’s time to go back to the drawing board and find a solution that’s scalable. It doesn’t stop at drone tech. Drones are the premise; it’s technology in general that we deal in. I’ve had to build custom software, specialised hardware, redesigned sensors just to be able to solve the problem and deliver a complete package.

Q. Tell us more about your experience in Nepal.

A. We were contacted by a lot of news agencies to film the disaster. We went with one of them, but even on our end we communicated with the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA). We offered our services, but by the time the message made its way to the right people, it was too late; people had already started moving out of Nepal because of the hostility. NDMA said they would set up a meeting and figure out how drones can be a part of the first response. But we volunteered with other organisations by offering help to everyone, and the best we could do was deliver blankets, water and food or scout areas because the focus was on Katmandu and no one was getting help outside. We flew over a village on the hills to see the destruction, and all we could do is, inform people to send help there.

Q. How do you train people to use a drone?

A. At the end of the day, we are a country of ingenious people. Companies build easy-to-handle drones that serve the purpose of just shooting video or pictures and also give initial training to get them started. They are also the people who crash drones. A pilot crashed one at a wedding and hurt an already frail old lady; crashed two in Chennai and Mumbai. So, in many ways, regulations are important, but that hasn’t curbed the selling of drones. You can buy drones in New Delhi as toys from big retail stores. People who are trying to make a difference will follow regulations. We shoot in Ladakh regularly. At lower air pressure, the drones don’t perform the same way that you’re trained in. Not a lot of people have the expertise to do that and, thus, shouldn’t try. We’ve trained our pilots and they even work on a contract basis. They’re making lakhs by doing odd jobs that we aren’t interested in. They have their own drones and shoot weddings and events. It’s nice to build something that helps people get started and make their own

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