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Drone-led food delivery soon to be a reality in India: Swiggy and Zomato get regulator’s nod to start test flights

In October last year, India’s regulator had rejected the application of two dozens companies for drone testing.

A handful of Indian technology companies such as Swiggy, Zomato, and a few others are all set to start testing drones which would be used to deliver products to consumers’ doorstep.

India’s civil aviation regulator, Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) has given a nod to the two homegrown food tech unicorns to test ‘fly beyond visual line of sight’ (BVLOS) drones. These are essentially unmanned aerial vehicles that can operate outside the normal visible range of the pilot.

Swiggy and Zomato are a part of one of the 13 consortia that have received the approvals, said a report by local media Economic Times (ET). Besides the food tech giants, Google-backed personal concierge startup Dunzo, homegrown budget airline SpiceJet, B2B e-retail platform ShopX, and Reliance-backed drone startup Asteria Aerospace also received DGCA’s permit.

While Swiggy, Zomato, and Dunzo, which is the part of the same consortia called Clearsky Flight, aim to conduct trials to deliver packages at consumers’ doorsteps, ShopX is looking at using drones for B2B deliveries.

Bengaluru-based drone company, Throttle Aerospace, that has also received approval from the government body, would deliver medical supplies in remote areas and transport live organs through drones that would fly from one hospital rooftop to another, the ET report said.

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The tests are likely to begin in the first half of July. All the 13 consortia are supposed to complete at least 100 hours of flight time in airspace designated by the Airports Authority of India by September 30. The logs of these flights will then be submitted to the DGCA which is expected to use that data to frame a policy for BVLOS drones before year-end. This, in turn, will bring the delivery companies one step closer to deploying drones commercially.

“Once they (the consortia) complete their flights and submit their logs, then we can really understand what will need to be the specifications required for BVLOS,” a senior government official told ET. “Our plan was to have the draft policy out by August, but that got pushed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

It is India’s maiden initiative to promote drones for commercial services. In the US, Amazon had launched Prime Air,  an in-house drone delivery service in 2016. Mid last year, the Seattle-headquartered company unveiled its latest fully electric delivery drone and said they would start making deliveries in the coming months. Although, reportedly, that hasn’t happened yet. Walmart and Google’s parent company Alphabet are also working on building capabilities for drone-led delivery.

In comparison, drone delivery services in China started turning into a reality in 2015. By 2018, China started drone trials to deliver meals. Last year, courier company DHL began regular drone deliveries in the country in partnership with local drone manufacturer EHang, while Chinese e-commerce giant JD started aggressive trials to deliver orders in remote areas.

India, meanwhile, has lagged behind the US and China. In May last year, the Indian aviation regulator gave a go-ahead for experimental long-range drone flights in the country and invited interest from the companies which would like to conduct experiments with drones for making deliveries. By October, the DGCA had rejected two dozens companies of the 34 companies that had applied. Those which were reportedly selected to take the process forward included Zomato, Swiggy, Dunzo, medical delivery providers Zipline and Redwing, Tata Advanced Systems Limited, and Honeywell, a member of a consortium formed by Throttle Aerospace.

“We will start flying from the first week of July and plan to clock around 120 hours of flights in two and a half months,” said Nagendran Kandasamy, founder and director of Throttle Aerospace. He added that the company initially planned to begin tests much sooner, but the novel coronavirus outbreak pushed back its plans.”