It’s been a while, but do you remember the scene in 3 Idiots, where Ali Fazal, playing Joy Lobo, develops this drone -- albeit an incomplete one -- an achievement brushed aside by college director Viru Sahastrabuddhe, played by Boman Irani? It was a joy to watch Aamir Khan’s character Rancho fix it and fly it, wasn’t it?
What you may not know is that this drone was a prototype developed by a 26-year-old student at IIT Bombay with his juniors in 2004. Little did they know at the time that they would, in a few years, bag a government contract to build high-altitude, stealth-friendly drones to supply intelligence and surveillance, and aid ground combat.
Somewhere between developing a portable solar charger -- the team’s first project -- and designing India’s first quadrotor drone (a drone with four rotors), Ankit Mehta, his college juniors Rahul Singh and Ashish Bhat, and childhood friend Vipul Joshi set up ideaForge Technology in 2007.
“While working on the alternate energy charger, we came upon this idea of building an innovative mini helicopter and realised that this could have a unique potential in itself. And so we started pivoting to building drones in 2009, after being founded in 2007,” Mehta told TechCircle.
Mehta, of course, was the CEO. His two juniors, Singh and Bhat, assumed the roles of vice president (engineering) and vice president (R&D), respectively, while Joshi, Mehta’s friend from his hometown Jodhpur, was the vice president (operations).
Mehta and his team tasted their first win in 2008.
“In 2008, in a competition held by the US and India departments of defence in Agra, IIT Bombay and Massachusetts Institute of Technology came first in the hovering category. When that happened, a lot of recognition came to our effort and we were asked by a number of DRDO labs and civil aviation labs to deliver autopilots to them for their UAV (unmanned aerial vehicles) programmes. That's how our journey in this space started,” Mehta said.
In 2009, ideaForge launched its first fully autonomous micro UAV, with a quadrotor configuration.
“Since then, we started delivering these systems to various police forces in India and eventually, the defence adopted it, followed by various central non-police forces such as NSG (National Security Guard), ITBP (Indo Tibetan Border Police), CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force), BSF (Border Security Force),” Mehta said.
Fast forward to late 2020, ideaForge received a $20 million order from the Indian Army for its SWITCH UAVs, which is a vertical takeoff and landing UAV that can operate at high altitudes and difficult climatic conditions for day and night surveillance.
SWITCH UAV is an indigenously-built system with 25x optical zoom and the ability to operate at an altitude of 4,500 metres.
“You remember what happened in Galvan Valley, right? They were blindsided by the other side. So the idea here is to augment the forces on ground, (giving them) the ability to look at areas they physically can’t reach. With a drone, you can dominate a really large area and get a view of what is actually happening on ground and not be taken by surprise,” Mehta said.
ideaForge’s drones, Mehta said, borrows mechanisms from several disciplines, including aerodynamics, aero structures, wireless communication, computer vision, mobile applications, payloads, camera and power electronics.
“Rather than employing off-the-shelf prototypes, there is rigorous improvisation and integration that goes into building the drone infrastructure,” Mehta said.
The Mumbai-based company operates on business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-government (B2G) business models, supplying to government agencies and private enterprises for applications in border security, counter insurgency, crowd monitoring, crime control, traffic and terror monitoring, railways, construction and real estate, oil and energy management.
It currently supplies different types of drones that have applications ranging from security and surveillance to disaster management. It lists seven variations of drones on its website -- RYNO UAV, Ninja UAV, Megaphone Drone, Q Series UAV, NETRA V Series UAV, NETRA PRO UAV and SWITCH UAV.
Let’s talk money
A startup that builds drones. Drones. And it was building drones in 2009, when the only thing most people knew about drones was that Barack Obama was using them to attack Muslim-dominated countries.
Do you think it would be hard for a drone company to raise capital? Surely not? Apparently, it was.
According to Mehta, it is challenging for a hardware startup, especially one that runs on B2G model, to raise capital, simply because most investors prefer software companies.
It has so far raised around $15 million from US firm WRVI Capital, Qualcomm and Infosys, according to VCCEdge data. Earlier this week, the company raised $2 million from venture debt and banking financial company BlackSoil. Last month, it raised $1 million from IT services major Infosys.
As per Mehta, the startup’s problems are cyclical in nature.
“There have been capital issues, operational glitches and demand cuts from time to time, but ideaForge has tried staying at the top of every situation,” he said.
When drone deployments finally began to see traction, it was offset by global incidents that showed that drones were being a nuisance around critical infrastructure, Mehta said.
“Consequently, the government put a ban on private use of these systems. Then, with a new policy, it banned the usage of drones by homeland security forces as well. We started on the backfoot, and it was seemingly difficult to operate in the space,” he said.
However, things changed for the better eventually, and the pandemic aided a relaxation of restrictions by the ministry of home affairs, which ideaForge took advantage of.
“Exemptions were put in place for government use of these systems... There were also zones that were created for drone operations by private enterprises for commercial and other purposes -- one just had to comply with the 'no permissions and no takeoff system' under the government’s Digital Sky platform. These gave us a breather,” Mehta said.
The company has concluded 50 orders to date. It sold its first autopilot, the drone system software architecture, in 2008, and shipped its first drone in 2010. It has delivered drones for the SVAMITVA scheme, which looks to map 6,60,000 villages in the country to provide property cards to the rural population.
The company has currently stopped selling autopilots, and focuses only on the drone business.
Without divulging price details, Mehta said: “Pricing of the product is largely a function of market dynamics and pricing can be really wide range. We have products that are suitable for customers who just want to dip their toes in the domain for the first time. And products, which are fully qualified, rugged, and deliver class leading performance better than anyone else globally can be expensive.”
Mehta is optimistic about his company’s future after the Indian Army order. “A highly conditioned drone that has undergone rigorous testing ought to go places,” he said.
Edited by Rashmi Ramesh