Skylark Drones: The pioneers in commercial drones
Technology has been accelerating at a tremendous and fascinating rate. Artificial Intelligence (AI) and automation have led the wave of the current industrial revolution. Additionally, the pandemic has given technology adoption a boost, with even traditionally technology-resistant sectors attempting to integrate technology into their operations.
One exciting development in automation has been the advent of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or, as they are popularly called, drones. Drones have been around for a while now but had mostly been deployed for military or defence purposes. The commercialisation of drones, while recognised as a trend, was still a thing of the future – until everything changed.
Technology has been accelerating at a tremendous and fascinating rate. Artificial Intelligence (AI) and automation have led the wave of the current industrial revolution. Additionally, the pandemic has given technology adoption a boost, with even traditionally technology-resistant sectors attempting to integrate technology into their operations.One exciting development in automation has been the advent of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or, as they are popularly called, drones. Drones have been around for a while now but had mostly been deployed for military or defence purposes. The commercialisation of drones, while recognised as a trend, was still a thing of the future – until everything changed. As Mrinal Pai, Co-Founder, Skylark Drones, observes, “The pandemic had an unprecedented impact on businesses globally, forcing many traditional businesses and industries to reinvent their operation models. The need of the hour was to achieve efficiencies and visibility despite reduced manpower and the abrupt shift to remote working.” Fortunately for Skylark, drones fit the requirement perfectly. “We took a short-term hit when both the waves were at their peaks, especially in the form of logistics or billing problems, but covid was otherwise a favourable event for us,” acknowledges Pai. “It pushed enterprises to accelerate digital transformation. Also, in the early days of lockdown norms easing up, there were still limitations on the number of staff allowed on sites. What we do with our drones, particularly the data analytics we provide, fit into the need to remotely monitor worksites.” The lift-offToday, Skylark Drones has come far but like many startup stories, this one too had its humble roots in a garage – until it got flooded, that is. The birth of Skylark can be traced back to 2013, when Pai, along with Mughilan Ramasamy, Co-Founder and CEO, Skylark Drones, had begun exploring the application of drone technology as students in a small college workshop. Their team won the NASA Systems Engineering Award in 2013 for building breakthrough technologies with drones. From building a drone through the night just to see it fly in the morning, Pai and Ramasamy moved to working first out of a quintessential garage and then from a coffee shop. “Initially, we thought of building drones for consumers but we realised the enterprise space offered more opportunities and changed track,” Pai shares. Within a few months of this decision, the duo bagged its first client, the Indian Army, who commissioned them to manufacture a drone that could function as a night-vision camera. Their next big client was the Bangalore Police who was looking to harness drones to monitor traffic on the 2015 New Year’s Eve with real-time surveillance and live video feeds. Since then, there has been no looking back. The hurdles en route When Skylark Drones first started out, a fundamental challenge was the regulations. “Most drone regulations in those days were in the grey lines. We struggled to find early adopters who believed that drone-based surveying, mapping and inspecting would save them costs, resources and time,” recalls Pai. “It was not easy to convince and educate traditional industries and transition them from manual workflows to automation with drones. Although people understood that drones were the future of worksites, making the leap was not easy. It took hundreds of demos and presentations to finally pass the yardstick of enterprise hierarchy.” Earlier, drones had been widely considered a threat to security and privacy; there was a ban on drones in India in 2014. The relaxed Drone Rules 2021 has helped startups like Skylark Drones tremendously. Initially, it was mandatory to seek digital permission from the Government to even fly a drone; the new policy offers clarity on the areas where drones may be flown using DigitalSky and the permissions required. “The new rules are aimed at encouraging the drone ecosystem of India,” says Pai. As a further boost to Skylark, India recently saw an amendment in mining policies as well – every mine above 50 hectare is mandated to carry out a drone survey every year, starting this year. “This amendment works out for mine operators as well,” explains Pai. “They need clearances to sell their material and inventory inspections to know if they can dispatch a certain amount of material. Now, all this can happen online with drone survey data, which readily tells us how much stock is present and how much production has happened. It also brings transparency into the process.” Drones as a Service (DaaS) The duo spent a good two to three years discovering possible use-cases for drones. With the applications being numerous, it was a challenge to narrow their scope of focus and dedicatedly work on converting the possibilities into a scalable offering. The next challenge was establishing the discovered use-case as a solution for clients as the sector was at a nascent stage. “We discovered that it was not the drones the enterprises were looking for but rather the helpfulness of the data the drones collect,” elaborates Pai. “So, we shifted our focus from building drones to making drone data useful and actionable. This is in the form of something specific –either volumetric reports, compliance reports or progress reports.” Since then, the company has launched two Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) products along with providing Drones-as-a-Service (DaaS): Spectra: A data analytics and visualisation tool to provide worksite intelligence and insights inferred from drone imagery. Drone Mission Ops: To simplify drone flying and operations for pilots. Recently, Skylark Drones raised $3 million to foray into international markets. “We offer our processing and analytical products and services in a subscription model,” says Pai. “For international markets, we are taking a product-first approach and gearing towards building a full-stack SaaS product.” The journey so far Pai believes Skylark Drones began its business at a favourable time. “Fortunately, we stepped in at almost the birth of this industry. However, those were early days and we had to reach from zero to one the hard way. Regulations had to fall in place, customer education levels were low and the whole endeavour had its problems – but it had its advantages too. We could set the standards for the industry with our competitors in terms of software solutions; earlier there were only US-based companies.” India’s drone market broadly comprises two kinds of players. First, the companies that provide the services of a drone operator. They own drones that can be flown and controlled for a specific purpose. The second are drone manufacturers who assemble components in India. Skylark Drones fit into neither category. While it has an operators’ network, its primary offering is the software to collect and facilitate actionable data. From a revenue perspective, although Skylark Drones started generating a turnover in 2017, Pai reveals that real growth only shot up in the past couple of years. “An average deal size – which used to be around Rs 25-50 lakh – has now risen tenfold. It was an experiment earlier but now companies seem to have crossed the stage of requiring numerous pilots, education on drone uses or multiple trials on multiple sites, choosing instead to scale up drone applications and deploying drones on multiple worksites, centrally. Even previously archaic companies have digital teams today, like CIS (Common Information Services) and CDO (Chief Drone Officer). As a result, budgets allocated for drone integration have risen and the average deal size for a DaaS provider like Skylark has gone up too.” On the horizon The startup is in the final stages of a few strategic partnerships where it is looking to work with drone assemblers to bundle its software. Drone imports are still banned in India, so most drones are sourced in the form of individual components and then assembled. In conclusion, Pai leaves us with some sound first-hand advice. “Understanding the needs of customers and building products for them rather than building on your idea of the best product is important, particularly when the startup is geared towards empowering traditional industries. Building trust is the foremost step in building a brand.” “We have a network of over 200 pilots in the country.” - Mrinal Pai, Co-Founder, Skylark Drones How can your drone services be utilised by the building and construction industry? Our software helps create a digital twin of worksites and enables remote analysis and monitoring. We cater to multiple aspects of the construction lifecycle. Before constructing on a worksite, we help conduct topographical surveys, understand the flood risk and plan drainage systems for safety and mitigate any loss from flooding. Our hydrology and drain design services have been used by companies like My Home, Phoenix, Amplus Solar and Spring Energy. Excavation and levelling of land is a large percentage of the overall cost. Monitoring and accurately knowing the volumes of excavation have helped clients like My Home save over 10 per cent of budgeted costs. Monitoring the progress of construction periodically using drones is quick and convenient. To what extent are your services customisable and scalable? We have a network of over 200 pilots in the country. With an operational model that is a combination of in-house drone pilots and a strongly trained network, we do not have too many supply constraints. This helps us to scale easily. Moreover, we have one of the best turnaround times in the industry.What potential future applications do you see for your drones? For agriculture, the inspection of vertical assets to improve safety and efficiency and mapping solutions aimed at empowering pilots and small-scale service providers. What is the expected turnover in the near future? We are expecting a valuation of 20 times in three years. Who are your key clients? Eighty per cent of our business comes from the mining sector. The remaining 20 per cent comes from the renewable energy sector such as constructing solar farms, wind turbines and power lines.