Asteria Aerospace: The Indian drone world’s best kept secret

Anand Murali January 3, 2018 12 min

A surveillance drone picks up some movement along the line of control triggering an alarm at the command centre. The commander in charge, en route a meeting, receives an alert on his mobile. He manoeuvres the drone from his mobile to zoom in for a closer look at the half a dozen infiltrators lurking in the dark. His instructions are unequivocal: take no prisoners.

At his farm office in an east African country, a shrimp farm keeper is busy overseeing shrimps across 40 ponds, each half a kilometre wide. He receives an alert on his mobile. A drone has picked up discolouration of water in one of the ponds. A polluted pond means a whole batch of shrimp will perish and the discolouration is a precursor to that. The alert may yet help him save the batch of shrimps.

At work in both instances is Asteria Aerospace, a little-known drone maker with its digs in a nondescript office at Indiranagar in east Bengaluru. Its claim to (potential) fame? Its team of 65 engineers is only one of two drone companies in India building both the physical structure of the drone and the software stack to manage a fleet, command and control it in-house.

Most drone makers in India license the flight controller, which is to a drone what the autopilot system is to an aircraft or the engine control unit to a car, from global companies such as DJI and ArduPilot. The odd company such as Navstik Labs, backed by Reliance Industries, has its own flight controller but not drones. Having in-house both the flight controller and the physical structure helps with the customised use of drones for a wide range of applications.

The only other Indian drone maker that can claim in-house hardware and software stack capabilities in-house is Mumbai-based IdeaForge, funded for Rs 70 crore.

Asteria, started up in 2012 by aerospace engineers Neel Mehta and Nihar Vartak with past avatars at Rockwell Collins, Boeing, and Accenture, is bootstrapped.

Nihar Vartak and Neel Mehta of Asteria Aerospace with the Cygnus UAS
Nihar Vartak and Neel Mehta of Asteria Aerospace with the Cygnus UAS

The company’s product line-up includes Cygnus, a fixed-wing drone; multi-rotor drone A400; and Genesis, its software stack for drone control and fleet management. Asteria’s current clientele include Indian paramilitary agencies, state police forces, and international companies with plans for a product focussed on industrial applications.

The hardware+software edge

Asteria has two drones in its arsenal, the fixed-wing drone Cygnus and the multi-rotor drone A400. The company got its first supply order from the Border Security Force (BSF) in April 2016. “Other than the BSF, today we have sold our drones to most of the big paramilitary agencies and multiple state police forces,” says company director Mehta, reeling off the names of the police in West Bengal, Punjab, Jammu & Kashmir, among other states, using the drones for surveillance and security applications.

These drones are capable of onboard image processing “which will detect various parameters like motion from the video while flying,” says Mehta. “The drone is also capable of locking onto a target and tracking it. We have had this feature and used it reliably over the past two years.”

The Cygnus A10 has a range of up to 15 km radio line-of-sight and the A400 up to 7 km. Both have a service ceiling of 3,000 m above mean sea level.

“The fixed-wing drones have an endurance of up to 90 minutes on a single battery charge and the multi-rotor drones can fly for 40 minutes at sea level. Currently, both of the systems weigh less than 4 kg with payload,” says Mehta. Payloads, he adds, can be swapped within five seconds with a magnetic connector. This makes easy the use of the drones and negates the need of to train people.

A Genesis screen grab showing the video feed and flight path of an active A400 drone
A Genesis screen grab showing the video feed and flight path of an active A400 drone

The primary payloads that have been incorporated into the drones include visual and thermal cameras. They are capable of image enhancement, which is a useful feature while flying at a 3 km altitude in hazy or foggy conditions. “Both drones are capable of streaming high-definition (HD) video in real time over a distance of up to 15 km,” says Mehta.

Genesis, the software platform, makes the Asteria hardware powerful. It allows users to view, track and interact with an Asteria drone or a fleet of them in real time. With the pride of a schoolboy showing off a newly acquired gizmo, Mehta pulls out his mobile phone and logs into an ongoing session. The screen shows a map with two icons of drones on different spots, each representing a drone in the air at an undisclosed Asteria test site. He taps on one icon and the screen has details like the drone’s flight path, video feed, battery power left, and other parameters like speed and altitude.

Another tab lists feeds from the different active drones that can be individually selected for an expanded view. “We can also manage and control the drones directly from here. In order to do that all I need to do is request access and once the controller approves, I will have control over the drone,” Mehta says.

Asteria drones allow locking on to objects and live tracking

The company claims is the only one of its kind currently available in India. “We are one of the few companies in the world to provide such a platform that will allow you to command, manage and operate a fleet,” says Mehta. “There can be one hundred drones flying and you can pick and choose which feed you want to see in real time, with less than three seconds in latency.”

Asteria says it uses secure channel and system be it for data transmission, access or storage. “Genesis can be deployed and accessed on the cloud or on premise based on the customer’s requirement. Also, the data gets stored in a server can be fetched later and analysed,” says Mehta.

A recent deployment of Genesis was for the West Bengal Police in the 2017 Durga Puja celebration. UAVs were used to monitor processions and idol immersions in three districts and all the footage was monitored at a command centre in Kolkata. Genesis will be soon deployed as part of a smart city initiative in March 2018. “It will essentially be for a city surveillance use case.”

Priming Asteria

Mehta and Vartak met at Purdue University while pursuing their B.S. degrees in Aerospace Engineering. Mehta completed his masters in the same field from Georgia Tech and later joined avionics company Rockwell Collins. He was part of the flight control and autopilot team developing electronic subsystems for companies such as Boeing, Airbus, Bombardier and Embraer. Vartak, meanwhile, joined Boeing where he was a systems and flight test engineer and then later worked at Accenture as a supply chain process and strategy manager.

Mehta was interested in a PhD in autonomous robotics but he and Vartak were bouncing around ideas about what to do next. “We were both fascinated about aerospace and we wanted to do something in India because we felt that there was an emerging market in this space,” says Mehta.

They spent nearly a year validating their business case as well as their technology skills, before returning to India end-2011. “We started with prototyping and developing drones while in the US itself and after a year or so, we were fairly confident of what is required to build a drone and make it fly and the skills we will need to build a team,” says Mehta.

The duo began by building the brain of their drone platform, called Atom, which sits on roughly a 4×4 cm printed circuit board. “We made our first hire, a young guy from IIT-Kanpur, and started working on the autopilot system. That was also my strong point because of my previous experience,” says Mehta.

The team was engaged for R&D projects with the National Aeronautics Lab (NAL) in Bengaluru that also helped in terms of some revenue coming into the company. The team built a data logger unit for NAL aircraft to capture various data parameters and also developed a mobile control unit inside a van. “By the time these projects got over, our own product development had kicked in and we started to focus more on its development,” says Mehta.

Abinash Robo of Asteria's R&D team assembling a Cygnus UAS
Abinash Robo of Asteria’s R&D team assembling a Cygnus UAS | Photo: Rajesh Subramanian

It took Asteria around three years to come out with its fixed-wing UAV, Cygnus, integrated with the software to control it. Around the same time, the company received its license from the central government’s Department of Industrial Policy & Promotion (DIPP) for drones manufacturing.

Soon the company began development of its multi-rotor UAS which became the A400 platform. “Since we already had a team that had developed a complete platform with the Cygnus, for the A400 we were able to go from concept to product in 6-8 months time,” says Mehta. What helped was that the software was the same, as were the user interface controls and technologies used on the payload like the cameras.

Mehta says sourcing was one big challenge he and Vartak faced. “We underestimated how hard it would be to develop hardware products without having an ecosystem in India and it took us long to figure out how to go about things and how to get a supply chain in place.”

Ananth Padmanabhan, a fellow at think tank Carnegie India, feels companies like Asteria with its full stack drone solution are essential for developing the skill set and ecosystems for India to be a player in the global drone space. But, the challenge in the short- to medium-term Asteria will be the lack of skill power. “You may want to manufacture in India but you will require sophisticated thinking about design. I’m not sure if India has the tooling engineers base that China has, which is why Chinese drone companies like DJI are global leaders by a mile,” he says.

What next for Asteria?

For all its Make in India chops, Asteria focuses on the design and outsources procurement of components like the imaging sensors and optics, motors, and propeller. “Definitely, 100% of the systems are designed in-house but we do not do manufacturing of any individual components ourselves. We pick a few of the parts, like motors, rotors and imaging sensors off the shelves based on our specs and requirement – say about 25%, but the rest of the 75% of the drone is developed in-house,” says Mehta.

According to him, the only reason the company imports product is when they can’t get the fineness or finish in India. “We import special types of screws from outside India which have very thin heads. Since there is no market for this here nobody makes them,” Mehta adds.

Since the drones are built to order the turnaround time for delivery is around a week. “The biggest lead time is in procurement. Since we make to order, all the parts may not be in stock so once we have them in we can build a drone in about two days time, then test is for another couple of days and then its ready to ship,” says Mehta.

According to him, there are around 50 Asteria drones currently deployed and in service across India now. “Four people for one UAV we can train within four days. We spend a lot of time training about situational awareness because you need to know where your position is, where the drone is and where the surroundings are,” he adds.

Asteria currently does not cater to the industrial sector, but its next product, which is in the final stages of finishing, is focussed on industrial applications and will be announced early this year.

Mehta says that they haven’t so far look into other spaces because the regulations around operations in some of these spaces are not yet clear. The DGCA had recently released a draft CAR for drone regulations and also conducted open houses to get comments from the industry on the draft. The final CAR for drone operations is set to be announced this month.

“With the new platform, we are focussing on a number of industrial applications including critical infrastructure inspection, agriculture, mapping, survey and GIS,” says Mehta. “It takes the same stack we have currently in place for the security and surveillance space and deploys it in the industrial space with a few changes.”

Asteria has ventured into the international market and one of its first clients is a shrimp farming company in an African nation (Mehta says he is not allowed to name the country yet). The company has four farms with about 40 ponds, each half a kilometre wide, which makes manually monitoring them a tedious and expensive task. It wants drones to conduct aerial inspection of the ponds to monitor the health of shrimps. Its order on Asteria is awaiting import clearance.

The drone manufacturer is also in talks with a company in Southeast Asia that help with mapping agricultural plantations and to check for deforestation from an ecological perspective. The demo for this project is scheduled this month.

Asteria has been bootstrapped so far and, with paying customers, is at a breakeven point for this financial year. It doesn’t disclose financials but using the average ballpark of between $10,000 to $30,000 for a drone solution in the industrial drones category, Asteria’s revenues should be in the Rs 6 crore to 7 crore range. The company is in talks with VCs for capital to scale up operations. “We have been so far funded by friends and family and we are operationally break even for this financial year. We’ve so far put in more than $2 million into the company collectively,” says Mehta.

It took three years of work to develop its core software stack but it clearly is Asteria’s silver bullet in a market primed for sharp growth. But global expansion against more established players could be a slippery slope. “When it comes to brand India as a manufacturer, the nation has not been able to have any great global brands in the manufacturing sector overall,” says Carnegie’s Padmanabhan. The perception of Indian products will always be a challenge, he adds.

 

Update at 7.35 pm on January 3, 2018: The copy earlier said that IdeaForge used to license flight controllers from external sources. The company has told us that it has always had an in-house controller and never licensed from outside. The copy has been corrected for this and the error is regretted.

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