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Drone piloting is the hot new career

Despite the blanket ban on drones, here's why piloting them is a trending career among young techies

For Nishank Mishra, who has freelanced as a web developer since 2011, the skies were beckoning. “In a middle class family, the chance to learn something new after graduation is not available. You do your job and start earning,” he says. His father retired as assistant engineer with the Public Works Department; his mother is a homemaker and his elder brother works in bank operations. But, Mishra was stung by the aeromodelling bug. He began saving money, sparing time and buying parts. “Slowly and gradually, I built my own drone, a 1.8 kg quadcopter fitted with a GoPro camera, and took it on a test drive to shoot the lakes of Nainital,” says Mishra about last year’s experiment.

Today, the 27-year-old earns anywhere between Rs 15,000 to Rs 25,000 for every aerial photography and cinematography assignment he takes up, using a DJI Inspire 1 Pro that costs R3.5 lakhs. Along with aerial tech company Quidich, he has shot for BBC, KTM India, Hero, Land Rover and Red Bull. As he chats about his passion, you realise that his web developing years have been long forgotten; for the last one year, Mishra has been a professional drone pilot.

Members of Drona Aviation, an IIT-B incubated start-up, conduct workshops for school and college students to fiddle with their low-cost drone, Pluto. Pics/Sameer Markande
Members of Drona Aviation, an IIT-B incubated start-up, conduct workshops for school and college students to fiddle with their low-cost drone, Pluto. Pics/Sameer Markande

Brand new profession
Money is a fringe benefit when you are flying your eye in the sky, is Mishra’s belief. Others may feel differently, but the bottom line is this — piloting a UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle for us Luddites) is no longer just an expensive hobby. Right from corporate events to industrial surveys, piloting a drone has become a much sought after job, and takers are queuing up.

Following the Nepal earthquake last year, they used them to survey the extent of damage
Aerial tech company Quidich has been piloting drones for more than just entertainment events;  following the Nepal earthquake last year, they used them to survey the extent of damage

Chirag Malhotra, for instance, is a 24-year-old Computer Science graduate from Karnal, Haryana, and a newish Mumbaikar living in Versova. Here to recce potential Bollywood projects for his year-old company, Drone Brothers (his associates operate out of Canada and Australia), Malhotra says, “Drone piloting has a serious future, especially in the entertainment and surveillance.”

Aerial tech company Quidich has been piloting drones for more than just entertainment events
Aerial tech company Quidich has been piloting drones for more than just entertainment events

Getting your wings
At Mumbai’s Quidich, work is in progress to set up a drone academy. Co-founder Rahat Kulshreshtha takes the drone out of its shaadi and entertainment setting to discuss limitless possibilities, including surveying mining sites and delivery of human organs intended for transplants. Kulshreshtha and his associates take trainees of an “international movement of drones” through three levels of taming your drone — understanding it, safety measures and filming with it. “There is a ‘cool’ factor associated with using a drone, but it’s an expensive machine. You can crash one within a week of purchasing it. Then what do you do?” says Kulshreshtha, from Srinagar. Drone pilots, like their airline counterparts, are a busy globe-trotting lot.

A former web developer, Nishank Sharma turned to piloting drones in 2014
A former web developer, Nishank Sharma turned to piloting drones in 2014

Drona Aviation, an IIT-B incubated start-up, has been conducting workshops for school and college students to fiddle with their low-cost drone called Pluto. It is as light as a butterfly, stable as a hummingbird and buzzes like a bee. And costs as little as Rs 4,000. “Pluto uses high-end electronics, and is something that we encourage people to build themselves. You can start with it as a hobby, and then decide if it’s something you would like to take up in future,” says co-founder Apurva Godbole. Students attending a workshop in a room beside Drona’s HQ on IIT’s Powai campus, have snuck out during their break to ask him about the Pluto. They are ecstatic, and are torn when they need to return to their workshop on solar power tech. “We have used Pluto to blow out candles on our colleagues’ birthday cake,” confesses Godbole.

Aidren Quental (left) and Apurva Godbole of Drona Aviation
Aidren Quental (left) and Apurva Godbole of Drona Aviation

His associate and UAV designer Aidren Quental, says, “We have conducted seven workshops in the last one year and parents of students are interested in drones, since they are a great way to learn about physics and mathematics.”

The drone ecosystem
But, it’s going to be a bit before Quidich launches its course, and Kulshreshtha cites the blanket ban on drones as a setback. “We want to play by the book and carry out the course legally. There is no fun in teaching people how to use drones in an indoor space,” he says. So, how do drone pilots survive, leave alone flourish, in an environment where the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) has strict regulations? Kulshreshtha replies, “We leave it to our clients to acquire the permissions. Regulations keep people from taking up piloting.”

The situation, however, may not be all that bad, considering Quidich shot the promotional video for the recent Make in India event in Mumbai using a drone.

Godbole says piloting a drone is just one of the many possibilities; a whole ecosystem of designers, developers and users is possible. Drona will soon be mentoring a college student from Pandharpur in Maharashtra, interested in using drones in farming processes.

Malhotra says that the drone pilot market is not a competitive one yet. Godbole disagrees. “If you are a freelancer, it’s nascent, but if you are an IITian, it’s competitive. It is the difference between making a few thousands a month and millions.”
The men are clueless when we wonder why drone piloting seems to be a male-driven enterprise. Quental says that they are in the middle of a user survey to understand why. Surely, it’s not just men who enjoy playing with gadgets.

Drone vs UAV vs Quadcopter

Drone is the general term used for all unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). The Oxford English Dictionary describes ‘drone’ as ‘a remote-less controlled piloted aircraft or missile’. Understood in such sense, drones came into first use after World War II when unmanned jets, such as the Ryan Firebee, started field operation. A quadcopter, the kinds used by pilots we spoke to, identifies with a particular set of drones which make vertical takeoff through their four propellers.

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