Blanket ban on drone imports could disrupt industry

The blanket ban on the import of finished foreign drones is likely to disrupt the drone industry in India, affecting the majority of service providers who depend on imported drones for aerial mapping, industrial surveillance and cinematography, in addition increase their financial burden.

The government’s decision will cause “a lot of disruption” in terms of business and “derail many well-laid plans” as 90% of service providers in India use imported drones, said Mughilan Thiru Ramasamy, managing director and co -founder of drone software services company Skylark Drones.

The Center should have offered incentives to the industry to override the ban as India lacks the manufacturing capacity to reduce its reliance on imports, he added.

Karan Kamdar, General Manager, 1 Martian Way Industries Pvt. Ltd, which develops in-vehicle artificial intelligence (AI) software and products that power drones, agrees.

“A lot of people are used to imported drones and how easy they are to use. Many foreign brands specifically manufacture drones for agricultural use, which would have contributed to the government’s initiatives on kisan drones, announced in the Union budget. These too will now be limited. It’s not as simple as banning an app. This industry depends on hardware,” he added.

In addition, the Center has also banned imports of semi-overturned (SKD) and completely overturned (CKD) drones. Only components can be purchased separately by drone manufacturers from their respective suppliers.

Although India has announced a Production Linked Incentive (PLI) scheme with an expenditure of 120 crore for drones and drone components to encourage local manufacturing, experts say drone assembly is in its infancy unlike smartphones or computer hardware.

India lacks the supply chain for local drone manufacturing, Ramasamy said. “We don’t have locally produced batteries or motors or the ability to produce large-scale autopilot electronics,” he added.

Furthermore, it will also increase the financial burden on companies, as imported drones are cheaper than locally assembled ones, a problem faced by mobile phone manufacturers in the early stages of the Make in India program.

A high-end drone used for industrial purposes can cost close to 1 lakh, while locally made drones can cost up to 4-6 lakh, Ramasamy said.

“For the drone ecosystem to flourish and for new, innovative use cases to emerge, access to high-quality, cost-effective drone hardware is essential.”

Kamdar and Ramasamy, however, said the ban would encourage drone manufacturing in India despite immediate concerns.

Smit Shah, president of the Drone Federation of India, said Indian manufacturers have already supplied drones assembled here for commercial operations, surveillance, agricultural spraying and healthcare delivery, in addition to the use of armed forces. “If you assemble a drone with 20 components and import 15 components and assemble it in India, your indigenization content is very low. But the fact that you import components from 15 suppliers and integrate them gives control and understanding of the technology. Later, if you want to indigenize five, you will have the know-how to do it,” Shah added.

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