Buildinga Drone Developers’ Community in IndiaBack in May 2013, I had just graduated and wasjobless and took a road trip from Hong Kong to Lucknow. A popular Chinesecompany had just come out with their drone for aerial cinematography which Ibought in Hong Kong. I also invested a good amount of money in the latestGo-Pro camera. Flying the drone was a real joy.
But 5 days into the journey, astrong current of wind just blew the drone away. And I was super depressed forthe next couple of weeks.When I came back to India, I visited my alma mater,IIT Bombay. where a group of boys was experimenting with drones that they hadjust built. While it looked awesome, the drone came crashing down in no time.And I could see the despair on their faces, the same one that I had when I lostmy drone.
They didn’t lose their own money since IIT was funding it all. But itwas tragic since, with all the efforts they had put in, a crash hits yourmorale hard. Later I found out that there were other teams who had dropped outwith much less of a hit. But each crash is demoralising. Good news though -that team went to win 2nd place in the IMAV drone competition in France beatingthe Swiss in the process.6 months later I joined hands with them and westarted the company ‘Drona Aviation’ for aerial cinematography.
We startedlooking at various serious problem statements to tackle with drones. We cameacross a lot of people from the industry, and heard their fantastic ideas.Unfortunately, we understood drones enough to know the technical hurdles inactually executing those ideas.So, we had two options to choose from: either go withan end solution ourselves – which we did try for a while like fire-fighting andlife-guarding but there were some hurdles along the way… OR allow a communityof developers to solve the problems faced by the Indian industry and markets.The 2nd choice made obvious sense to us since that way the growth of the Indiandrone industry will be a lot more organic and driven bottom up just like the ITindustry instead of top down like government projects. So, taking from our own experiences as developers, wejotted down some of the major hurdles in our journey:1. Veryexpensive drone platforms2.
Veryfragile platforms – which meant we lost a bunch of money every time there was acrash3. Verydifficult programming platforms – we had to spend a lot of time sifting throughthe code to make very small changes4. Justa very unstable flying platform – we had to take a person everywhere we wentjust to get him to pilot the drone we built5. Anyaddition of hardware on top of the drones was not trivial – an extremelyarduous task figuring out which port to connect to and how… followed by adifficult programming integration of the hardwareSo, while people had (and have) amazing ideas forbuilding great drone applications, they have been bogged down by these hurdlesstopping them.
Imagine being a phone app developer…. except that you had thebuild the phone hardware yourself, figure out how to get it working and thenworry about whether the government will let you use it. That’s the problem thedrone developers in India have been facing!!Which is also why we do not have hundreds of companiesin India….
YET!So, if I told you – we built a platform right awaythat solved all of these problems – I would be lying. The 1st prototype ofPluto drone came out. A horrible looking prototype that… well… just flew. Wehad to undergo a continuous series of iterations – taking one issue at a time.Thankfully, we were supported by a lot of first adopters.
The first product Pluto came out of these iterations -a robust programmable nano drone. We parallely started training students on theplatform. Till date, more than 3500 students have been trained on the platform.Further inputs from the developers led to the development of Pluto-X which isin its alpha prototype stage and is in the hands of a few developersThe Pluto drone is however, only the platform. Thedevelopers working on it are what created wonders. On the consumer side, wehave developers building some pretty cool applications.(I show a couple of good Pluto use cases)Consumer drones globally sell drones using suchinteresting features.
But this community of developers is changing the game.They are building their own use cases and features on top of the drones andshowcasing it to the world. If I can refer to the phones analogy again, we hadphones sold as feature phones in the past. Then iOS and Android came in andchanged the whole game.
The power shifted from the manufacturer to thedeveloper.Where does this lead to in the future. We havestudents across India building interesting ideas on the platform. We haveprofessors at IIT prototyping their concepts of scout drones for NSG soldiersin urban battlefield. Another professor and his team are experimenting withwarehousing solutions using drones. IIT Bombay is also using the platform forconducting a robotics competitions eYantra using Pluto.
We strongly believe in the ‘Hole in the wall’ projectwhere if we could empower the developers with the right set of tools, they cancreate wonders. And we are hoping that these developers will create an entiredrone industry in India, create more jobs and help India in being a competitorand not just a follower of technology. Thank you!!