“Actually, I learned how to fly a drone by watching YouTube videos. I did not receive any formal training,” says Dheeraj Aithal, a Bengaluru-based drone pilot.
Drone flying is now a legit profession, and although there are actual classes and training sessions in Bengaluru these days, many early drone operators have learnt the skill by watching YouTube vidoes such as this:
Aithal, who worked as an operations manager with a startup till 2014, started flying drones when he became interested in cinematography. Two years ago, he became fascinated by aeromodelling. Aithal and his cousin would build small gliders in his house and try to fly them.
“We did not know the potential of these machines; we built them using plastics. They would crash most of the time,” says Aithal.
Around this time, Aithal met Robin Darius, who was working as an editor with renowned wildlife filmmaker Sandesh Kadur. Robin and Aithal shared the same interests — drones and filmmaking. This is how AIthal landed an internship with Kadur. On an assignment for Animal Planet, he was given an opportunity by Kadur to assist their team to fly a drone for filming wildlife. “We were getting aerial shots of leopards, habitats and villages in Rajasthan although our drones were pretty erratic. It was one hell of an experience,” says Aithal.
Drone flying is currently one of the most sought-after skills in Bengaluru. Right from industrial surveys, agricultural mapping to animal conflict mitigation, demand for drone pilots has gone higher, and takers are queuing up.
Aithal has now co-founded Blackkite Media, a company that specialises in aerial filming, and he earns anywhere between Rs 15,000 and Rs 25,000 for each assignment.
During his interaction with FactorDaily, he was getting several calls from clients. One of the calls was a request to fly a drone over flood-hit Guwahati to monitor the death of animals and to track flood-related wreckage in some villages.
Drones aren’t just used for wedding videos anymore
It’s well-known that drones have been used in the advertising industry and for wedding videos in India for far longer than in more “serious” use-cases, such as defence or land surveys. But that is changing, and drones are coming into play in areas such as wildlife census and monitoring, and even to control poaching.
Filmmaker Prakash Matada, founder and CEO of IoraPro, a Bangalore-based video production house, wanted to offer his clients something different from other production houses and that is when he came up with the idea of using drones for video content production. Soon, his clients figured that they could be used to accomplish many filming tasks that can be tedious to do from the land.
Earlier this year, Matada trained around 35 forest guards at the Pench Tiger Reserve in Maharashtra to operate drones. Guards then used these drone piloting skills to understand the fishing patterns which is a Rs 80 crore fishing mafia in the core tiger reserve.
Shenzhen-based drone manufacturer DJI has proved to be a game-changer in the Indian market. Their 2014 offering, the Phantom-II, boosted the hobby drone flying market in India.
So what does it take to become a drone pilot?
While a small drone can be operated in an open field, bigger and sophisticated drones need a higher level of expertise. To fly drones there are certain skills one needs to master, so as to become comfortable flying all kinds of drones regardless of their orientation.
Mrinal Pai and Mughilan TR, founders of the Bengaluru-based drone manufacturers and service providers Skylark Drones, have turned their passion for flying drones into a full-time business. Mughilan told FactorDaily that the drone flying market has picked up significantly and it cannot remain at a hobby level now.
“The pilot should have the ability to learn and understand the art of flying. Each project comes with its own set of demands, and the drone operator must possess different sets of skills. He or she should be able to create a flight mission from scratch, control speed and prepare a good report,” says Mughilan.
The basic theoretical understanding that flying a drone requires is a thorough understanding of motor, speed control and wireless links.
The second phase of the training includes mastering takeoffs, landing and hovering. In use-cases such as filming and survey, it is important to learn maneuvering the drone and the ability to track the drone camera. Becoming a good pilot is a question of practice.
Abhi Mandela, who pilots drones for scientific applications, agrees and stresses on the importance of training.
“It took me about six months to get used to flying around a drone comfortably and safely. There is a lot of risk involved and one must need at least basic training in flying,” says Mandela.
His expertise in piloting a drone was used by Nat Geo earlier this year in an exploratory mission to Africa. He not only piloted the drone over the Okavango Delta in Botswana for biodiversity mapping, but also helped the team with technology aspects and satellite data uploading.
DGCA currently prohibits the use of drones for commercial purposes. While questionable as far as their legality, light drones are already being used for aerial photography, in applications such as real estate. Also, a lot of land surveys, geological mappings are carried out with restrictions.
According to Mughilan, trained drone pilots earn anywhere between Rs 25,000- Rs 50,000 per month now, based on their experience.
Drone-flying is a marketable skill
Commercial drone-flying is a new marketable skill, and education and formal training are still in the nascent stage. However, to keep up with the projected demand for these skills, there is a growing interest among operators to acquire formal certifications and training. This could also be a substantial market in coming years.
In a quick chat with FactorDaily, Chennai-based drone pilot Pragdish Santosh said there is growing interest in drone technology. Pragdish runs UAV Academia, an academy in Chennai which trains students in various streams of drone engineering and flying.
“Once people understand the scale and range of applications using drones, they will be requiring trained people. That is when there will be a big demand for pilots,” says Pragdish.
The demand for professional drone-piloting is not competitive yet, but as Yogesh Kumar, a drone operator, points out, there were very few operators even a couple of years ago and now even a wedding photographer uses drones. Some operators feel that once regulations are in place and equipments become cheaper, remunerations will come down.
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Disclosure: FactorDaily is owned by SourceCode Media, which counts Accel Partners, Blume Ventures and Vijay Shekhar Sharma among its investors. Accel Partners is an early investor in Flipkart. Vijay Shekhar Sharma is the founder of Paytm. None of FactorDaily’s investors have any influence on its reporting about India’s technology and startup ecosystem.