Indian drone companies, including manufacturers and customer service providers, are facing a shortage of skilled people, says Pradeep Palelli, founder and chief executive officer (CEO) of Thanos Technologies, one of India’s first drone manufacturing firms. 

“There will be three to four lakh drones that are required for the entire country. It is a recurring market. Given that drones have a lifetime, these 3-4 lakh drones means so many pilots and a same number of co-pilots or helpers. So there’s a huge requirement for the manpower for this industry, which is a slightly specialised one,” he told businessline in an online interaction. 

At the same time, training institutes are being set up and organisations such as Thanos, launched in May 2016, have entered into partnerships. “We keep working with agri universities and industrial training institutes specifically for maintenance technicians. We are working closely with agri MBA colleges to take up interns and ultimately offer them a job to handle field level marketing and sales roles,” Palelli said.  

Pradeep Palelli, founder and chief executive officer of Thanos

Pradeep Palelli, founder and chief executive officer of Thanos

Meeting rising demand

Since the problem has been identified and people understand the need for drones, the stage for scaling up has come up. “That’s where governments have come into the picture. Several service providers are coming up and we’ll be partnering with them,” the founder and CEO of Thanos, which began producing drones in 2021, said. 

Thanos, which plans to have 2,500 of its drones operational this fiscal and around 8,000 over the next few years, will be creating service providers in business-to-business and other segments as well. This will be to ensure the vision of automation is resolved as also problems such as skilled workers, he said.

Remote pilot training organisations (RPTOs) will help train pilots or service providers. Partnerships with national skill training institutes and others will help generate sufficient manpower to actually cater to this, said the founder and CEO of Thanos, a bootstrapped firm which will try to raise its capital through funding over the next 3-4 months.

The Prime Minister Didi Drone Scheme will be the biggest supporting project where 15,000 women self-help groups will get drones and women will be trained to operate and maintain drones, he said. Thanos was part of the companies that demonstrated 50 of its drones in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu when Prime Minister Narendra Modi witnessed a nation-wide demonstration recently.

Schemes likely post-polls

Over the next two years, 15,000 drones will be supplied. “Women are being trained by us and a few other original equipment manufacturers besides training institutes. The Centre has already begun this activity with fertiliser companies such as IFFCO,” said Palelli. 

The government will also enable the sales of drones enabling bank loans for various schemes. It could also provide over 50 per cent subsidy and individuals may have to pay 20-50 per cent of the total cost of a drone.

Post-elections, many States such as Karnataka, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh could come up with schemes to promote drones, he said, adding that empanelment of manufacturers will take place shortly in these States.

Palelli said Thanos as the early mover in the sector understands how the technology works and is trying to scale up to ensure technology reaches every village in the country. 

Three farming issues

When the company was launched, it felt much more could be done with drones, particularly in agriculture to tackle the issues of manual labour.

“Basically, we identified three problems - shortage of labour, inefficiency and inconsistencies in spraying and the third, which has been under-reported, health hazards due to spraying,” he said. 

 Thanos felt the three issues are something which could be addressed by automating the solution. “That’s where the drone came into the picture. In one single shot, a drone addresses these issues,”  the company’s founder and CEO said. 

The company, which had its first prototypes demonstrated in 2017 at Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh with a 5-litre drone, was the first to partner all agrochemical companies in India. Thanos, which then scaled up the drone to a 10-litre one, got the opportunity to work with all these companies which had done some work in China, Europe and a few other countries. 

Largest potential in agri

“They wanted to try something out in India in 2017. Then, professors in universities were not aware or had not done enough research. On the commercial side, chemical companies were proactive and they started doing trials and we started working with them from 2017 onwards,” he said.

The capability of the company, which did spraying services until 2021 on about 5,000 acres, is basically designing and manufacturing drones. Agriculture is a key focus area, which it believes is the largest commercial application for drones. 

“In the commercial sector, agriculture has the largest potential application, where lakhs of drones are required on a recurring basis,” said Palelli, whose company marched forward in the initial years to 2021 in view of severe restrictions imposed on drones by the Director-General of Civil Aviation.

Until 2021, when the government came out with rules, Thanos sustained doing pilot projects. “From 2021, we started scaling up in terms of our production facility or even the requirements as drones were adopted in a big way,” the company’s founder said. 

Lithium-ion batteries advantage

Thanos, which has supplied a few hundred drones across five States in southern and central regions, is different from other drone companies. The company designs its drones, while other companies import completely or semi knocked down kits.

The firm is one of the first ones to use lithium-ion batteries for agriculture drones. “It has given us the advantage of having the highest flight time for an agricultural drone,” said Palelli, who has a 40-member team working with him.

The Hyderabad-based company has produced over 300 drones till now at its manufacturing facility in the Telangana capital and has clocked over 25,000 acres with its drones usage in agriculture. 

The company deals in the B2B segment with the customers being mostly service providers. “Some of these B2B companies own upwards of ten drones. Some of them own 3-6 drones,” Palelli said.

Stating that the Union government has been largely supportive, including on policy front, he said the drone schemes will soon be implemented by the State governments.

Unique serial numbers

Thanos is trying to tap into custom hiring centres and farmer producers organisations besides Krishi Vigyan Kendras, which hold technology demonstrations.

Stating that the drone market is unregulated with many importing kits and assembling them, he said companies which produced certified drones are trying to make their mark by educating users. “However, a lot of things are going to change with the government enforcing a lot of guidelines,” Pilelli said. 

 Drones have unique serial numbers that can be verified on DGCA portal but there are drones without serial numbers and they could be 5-10 times more than ones - likely to be between 3,500-3,700- with the numbers, which are generated on the DGCA portal. “Any certified drone, you can find it in the form of a small aluminium-based number plate on one of the parts,” said the company’s founder and CEO.

 Thanos is partnering with a few RPTOs, particularly with Mysore- and Pune-based ones, so that it can be a one stop shop offering other services such as insurances, funding and licences.

Other features

The feature of Thanos drones is that since they are in-built, it gives the company the advantage of providing proper service and addressing any issues in them. “The technical aspect is that we use carbon fibre and aerospace grade aluminium, both of them extremely sturdy, strong materials, lightweight and strong materials, as opposed to 90 per cent of the companies which use certain load bearing parts to be made of nylon or composite plastics,” said Pelelli.

 The materials provide more durability and sturdiness besides the advantage of lithium-ion batteries which have a higher life and provide more flying time while being used for spraying insecticide, pesticides and agro-chemicals. The drones have a flight time duration of 22 minutes, excluding the time taken for filling the tanks and the batteries last 300 cycles. 

“After that it doesn’t mean they will go dead. You can use it as a spare with a 50 per cent running time compared to the new ones,” the company’s founder and CEO said.  

Thanos has two drone models with one of them having additional features such as having sensors to avoid obstruction in the front and back, an inbuilt screen with 4G SIM and a small camera. The advanced version costs ₹1 lakh more.