Meet Mumbai's youngsters who fiddle with new obsession - drones

May 13, 2018, 07:30 IST | Kusumita Das

As drones become the latest gadget to become everyday toys among Mumbai youngsters, racing them is the next step in the obsession

Two years ago, Jaidwaj Malhotra was running a Google search for a motor for his model airplane when he instead started reading about drones and how to build them. He was immediately taken in by the little object that could fly at 120 km per hour. Today, the 18-year-old is working for an organisation, helping them design surveillance drones for the Indian Army.

Malhotra is part of a tight-knit community of young drone racers in the city that came into being around the time the Indian Drone Racing League (IDRL) was founded by Karan Kamdar in 2016. Over the past two years, the field has gained a sizeable traction with IDRL having 875 pilots registered with them from all over India. The pursuit is expensive.

Building a drone can cost as much as '40,000, and the not-so-cheap batteries must be replaced every three months. The police continues to remain suspicious of fliers. However, for these pumped up youngsters, no obstacle is too big. Even with the odds stacked against them, they are finding ways to let their dreams fly.

'Burnt the circuit board while building my first drone'
Jaidwaj Malhotra, 18

His father being into aero-modelling, Juhu resident Jaidwaj Malhotra has always had a fascination for flying objects. Two years ago he participated in an aeromodelling competition held by Boeing, at the IIT TechFest. Around the same time, he came across the drone, or the "quadcopter". "If you want to fly a drone, it is important that you build it as well. You need to understand the mechanics, to ensure best control. And, in case of trouble, you must know how to fix it in a second," Malhotra says. Like Nayak, he too is a self-taught drone-maker, who got all his knowledge from the Internet.

Jaidwaj Malhotra. Pic/Satej Shinde
Jaidwaj Malhotra. Pic/Satej Shinde

"My first attempt was not successful. I burnt the circuit board. But, you live and learn," says the first-year mechanical engineering student. He spread the word on his drone-making abilities on social media and soon people began to approach him. "That's how I got roped in by a startup to design UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) for the Army." When he doesn't have exams, he practises six hours a day on a track that he builds himself, on the Jamnabai School Grounds. "A racing track comprises elements like gates, flags and cones that act as obstacles. I practise on one track, then change it completely and practise again."

One Race I want to participate in: World Drone Prix

'I am the first pilot to register from the country'
Siddharth Nayak, 26

Employed in the construction sector, Nayak is currently neck-deep into the Mumbai Metro project. It's only in the weekends that he manages to fly. "Sometimes, it's not even that, as there are working Sundays too," he tells us. Nayak, who grew up in Nala Sopara and got a degree in instrumentation engineering from a Vasai's Vartak college, has always been keen on robotics. "But, that was mostly stuff on land; I had a craze for flying."

Siddharth Nayak. Pic/Datta Kumbhar
Siddharth Nayak. Pic/Datta Kumbhar

Randomly stumbling upon a drone-racing video on YouTube in 2016 was a deciding moment for him. Nayak, of course, had no experience in drones up until that point. He went through several tutorials online and managed to build his first drone. "I tried it out in the dried salt pans in Vasai, where there were no people. It went up till about 30 feet," he says, speaking of his test run.

The height is not the point of importance in drone racing, where they race not more than seven feet above the ground. "It's precision and control that counts, because you're flying at 120 kmph. It's a lot tougher to control drones at a lower height." Nayak had his first race in IIT Gandhinagar in 2016 and his latest victory was last month at Smaaash, besides three races in Kochi and Pilani. "I had once quit my job to do this professionally, but that didn't work," he says with a smile. Nayak's next aim is to represent an organisation as a drone racer. "My dream is to represent India as a drone racer in an international league, someday."

One Race I want to participate in: Drone Champion League

'I sold my first drone to build my second one'
Himadri Roy, 21

When he was in Std X, Himadri Roy asked his father for money to build his first drone. "I had done my research. I showed him the outline of my plan, which I had developed after going through hundreds of tutorials and blogs. When he saw that I was not talking out of thin air, he agreed," says Roy. The first drone that he built had a larger frame and was heavy. It took him over a month to finish, with help from his father. "Now, I can build it in a week." In the years that followed, he upgraded his machine. "I learnt about more sophisticated methods online and then I sold my first drone to a friend who is an engineer, and used that money to build my second one. This one is a racing drone. It's smaller, faster and more agile." Roy, who was a member of an online forum called Remote Controlled India, came across IDRL on it. He got invited to his first race in Gandhinagar in 2016. "I did a few laps and crashed. It's crucial to keep your mind steady in this race. If you worry you'll crash, you will. I have become calmer now."

Himadri Roy. Pic/Sneha Kharabe
Himadri Roy. Pic/Sneha Kharabe

He uses the same calm to deal with authorities when they come in the way. "The laws regarding droning are not clear in India. So, the police continues to stop us. Last week, a police vehicle followed me while I was flying. When something like that happens, I try to explain that it is a sport. I also let them watch the video feed that has recorded what the drone has seen, so they know that we are anything but troublemakers." Currently, he is employing his drone knowledge in his fourth year project. "We are trying to develop drones that can be used for industry surveillance, to identify defects in mobile towers, in particular," he says.

One Race I want to participate in: Smaaash Drone Race at Gateway of India

The tough race
Drone racing constitutes participants controlling drones equipped with cameras through a remote control and a head-mounted device that shows the live-stream video from the camera feed. Typically a drone racing track is 500-600 metres long, and comes with obstacles like gates, trenches and turns through which racers need to manoeuvre their drones. A race comprises three laps and lasts under five minutes, depending on the drone speed. They take place not more than seven feet above the ground. Most races in India see an average participation of 20 racers per event, that includes both professionals and amateurs.

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