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Shortage of pilots, operators, inspectors, engineers a major concern for budding drone industry

Shortage of pilots, operators, inspectors, engineers a major concern for budding drone industry
Photo Credit: 123RF.com
15 Feb, 2022
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As India edges closer to mass adoption of drones, demand for talent in this specific sector is set to rise but fulfilling that demand poses a major challenge.

While data sourced from staffing company TeamLease Digital show that the drone industry has the potential to create close to 100,000 jobs directly or indirectly over the next 5-7 years, the skill shortage will be felt more acutely, note experts.

“There is a shortage of drone pilots and it is expected to grow as demand grows. In the next 2-3 years there will be a lot of drone usage,” said Mughilan Thiru Ramasamy, chief executive and co-founder of Skylark Drones, a software company that offers drone solutions.

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Gautam Vohra, vice president and business head, telecom and engineering staffing at TeamLease, corroborated that 20% of all jobs in the drone industry right now are for pilots. “Nearly 750 to 900 job openings are listed every month,” he said, adding that the demand is expected to grow by 15-20% in the next year.

Ashish Aggarwal, vice president, Public Policy at Nasscom, an industry body, concurred there is a shortage of skilled pilots for land mapping purposes, professional videography and specific use cases. 

The industry, for instance, will require skilled drone pilots who can operate drones in different conditions, surveyors who will interpret drone maps, and programmers to write artificial intelligence (AI) based code for the drones to operate. This will be all the more important when the drone industry begins catering to industries including real estate, agriculture, thermal imaging, entertainment, logistics, and healthcare.

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To address this challenge, the government plans to start courses for skilling in select technical institutes in all states as part of the Drone Shakti initiative announced by the finance minister at the budget 2022. Industry experts estimate there are 15 to 20 drone schools currently in the country.

Training for flying drones is mostly done through flight simulators in drone schools. However, they require certification to fly the drones. Earlier drone certification from a drone school was submitted to the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) through the Digital Sky platform, following which the drone pilot license was issued by DGCA. 

To ease the process, DGCA recently made changes to the rules, which allows a drone school to issue remote pilot certificates. DGCA also made remote pilot certificates optional for operating a drone up to 2 kg for non-commercial purposes.

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Certificates will still be required for commercial purposes. Aggarwal explains, “This will allow DGCA-approved drone schools to issue remote pilot certification through the Digital Sky portal.”

Ramasamy added that specialized training is required to operate a drone under different conditions. As compared to someone operating a drone for marriage photography or surveillance, requirements of a drone pilot for crop monitoring, mine surveying or detecting an issue in a chemical plant is different and challenging. “The pilot needs to know the surroundings and safety protocols specific to each industry before they can operate drones,” he explained.

In addition to pilots, there is also a huge demand for skilled drone operators, software engineers, quality inspectors, service engineers and drone engineers, according to Vohra cited above. 

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That said, Karan Kamdar, chief executive of 1 Martian Way Industries that develops software and embedded AI drone solutions, believes that drones are underutilized. “AI is a segment which can change it with real-time vision and real-time sensing of the environment. Applications for this in industrial space are tremendous. There are a lot of things that can be done with drones such as examining boilers and chimneys. Applications with computer vision can play a key role here,” he pointed out.

According to Kamdar, there should be more focus on training in these areas as well or the industry will struggle to fill these roles later. Right now, the training is mostly focused on handling off the shelf components, putting them together or flying drones. 

"On the software and analytics side, there will be training which will be required for drone data specialists who will be able to interpret drone maps, videos and images - these are new surveyors and inspectors," said Ramasamy. 

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Nasscom's Aggarwal believes collaboration between drone companies and educational institutions can help. “Drone companies can help in upskilling certified pilots for use cases, and in understanding optimum overlaps (manned vs unmanned spaces), ground sampling distance for perfect imagery,” he concluded.