Drones

Indian Drone Racing League Will Overcome Challenges – Interview with Karan Kamdar

Drones at start line IDRL
Credit: Karan Kamdar

Karan Kamdar is the Founder and President of the Indian Drone Racing League (IDRL).

IDRL is backed by parent company 1 Martian Way Corp, an established aerospace and robotics firm in Mumbai, and has its very first event coming up in October.

Third Law Sports spoke to Karan about the drone racing scene in India, how he believes it can boost the country as a whole, the tussles with the government regarding drone regulation, and IDRL’s October event.

Karan Kamdar

Karan Kamdar

Third Law Sports: What’s the drone sports scene like in India? Are there many grassroots clubs and is it nationwide?

Karan: Drone racing in India is very much in its prenatal stages at the moment. It is nothing compared to the likes of what has taken off in the US or what we witnessed on a grand scale at the the World Drone Prix in Dubai.

I would say that there is somewhat of a cascading effect that has hampered the growth of drone sports or any drone related activity in the nation which I will discuss later.

Drone racing started out a couple years ago among small groups of drone hobbyists and enthusiasts all across the country which primarily met to enjoy the sport, discuss their setups and exchange ideas regarding taking their drones, and the sport in general, to the next level. The sport continued to attract followers in these distributed pockets across India with early grassroots competitions that involved conducting races on farm lands and other remote areas using whatever race track equipment they had available.

It was with pure passion and thrill for the sport that such early grassroots drone racing continued to emerge while staying as far as possible out of the radar of the drone bans and regulations that were beginning to take shape in the country. I truly salute these groups who were the torch bearers of what I term the “Drone Racing Movement” in India. It is because of their undeterred early initiative that we have anything at all like drone racing in India.

It is also important to note that if we have to fully grasp the current state of drone racing in India, we contextualize it from the point of the glass half-empty argument, the non-believers who are stuck within the confines of an almost nonsensical understanding of the potential of drones and those who do not want to step forward to make a worthy argument against the law makers in the country who themselves cannot define what a drone is. The word “drone” actually has acquired an improper connotation in the country given the slew of government regulations that are kept open to interpretation and haphazard experiments like a pizza delivery without getting prior consent of the authorities.

The first pan-India ban on drones happened in October 2014 with seasonal bans and restricted usage ever since. What’s disappointing is that these announcements are published in a manner that leads to more questions than answers. Sometimes it feels like the authorities are making good progress and want drones to work towards a good cause while in almost all other cases you get a sense that they have a minus ten understanding of what they’re talking about. This had had a tremendously detrimental effect for the industry at large in India.

Innovative startup companies in the drone space are beginning to close down and there is now a deep rooted fear among the buyers whose very first questions are “What about regulations?” and “Can I operate these safely without being caught by the police?”.

When you have such fear, you cannot innovate and drone racing is no different.

We have been seen by the world as mostly a service only nation but there is more untapped talent in this nation than people know, and a sport like drone racing needs to be brought to its fullest potential if India is to stop being 10 to 15 years behind other countries when it comes to drones or any other new technology.

It happened with the PC revolution and now with drones. First there are regulations, then there is fear, then is a complete shutdown of innovation and finally when the government realizes the revolutionary potential, it’s already too late. Our latest law does not even allow us to freely import drones. Again it’s not clear whether we can import drone parts like frames and motors, or if those are banned too.

The drone racing movement will persist in spite of all these challenges because the right argument is that the drone racing community, and their drones, cannot post a threat to the security of the country and its citizens in any way. We’re not building spy drones nor are the races being held in places that cause a public threat or nuisance. There will be more noise and nuisance created by a single Indian marriage procession on the streets than there would be by the next million drone races held in the country combined! And this is where the Indian Drone Racing League comes in with its mission to build a haven for drone racing pilots, we are encouraging drone innovation and thereby ultimately legitimizing a lot of drone related activity throughout the nation.

Indian crowd watches man fly FPV drone

Courtesy of Karan Kamdar

Third Law Sports: When was the IDRL founded, tell us about who’s involved and where in India is it based? Have you established relationships with any international organisations?

Karan: It’s not been too long since IDRL first got started. In fact it’s only been about a month since we officially launched, but the response thus far has been terrific. We already have about 30 registered pilots on our site with background checks verified along with a highly active IDRL Whatsapp group.

The number of pilots on the IDRL platform is expected to surge quickly as we spread the word about drone racing in India and get closer to holding some of our first events. Our goal is to have a thorough database of the best pilots in the nation and provide them with the tools, community and support they need to be the best drone racing pilots in the world.

IDRL is backed financially by its parent company, 1 Martian Way Corp., an aerospace and robotics firm currently focused on industrial drones which is based in Mumbai, India and its employees are involved with the day to day operations of IDRL. We like to view IDRL as a big family involving all our employees and our pilots and users as stakeholders and this is one of the reasons that we are so optimistic about the growth and future of IDRL. Any decision whether it be big or small is first reviewed by all the stakeholders and we act based on a simple majority vote.

For IDRL to truly scale however, we will need more companies and organizations onboard.

We are actively partnering with companies whose brands align with the IDRL mission of introducing a novel piece of technology in India and nurturing it into a full fledged national sports league which would set the standard of drone racing in India.

This is a major undertaking with a lot of things involved in ultimately making the sport a mass market commodity that the common man in India can access and enjoy as easily as cricket. It is only at that point that IDRL will reach its fullest potential, otherwise it will be relegated primarily to the level of a niche sport with a restricted fanbase.

Indeed IDRL has already started establishing relationships with some international organizations such as RotorSports (now the Drone Sports Association) to hold the IDRL India Drone Nationals for their 2016 World Drone Racing Championships. We intend to hold it before October 2016 to find the best all India drone racing pilots; five of which will qualify for the DroneWorlds.

Setting up a gate IDRL

Courtesy of Karan Kamdar

With IDRL still in its early stages however, we might be short on time to hold the Nationals this year since we’re already committed to our launch event at Amalthea, IIT Gandhinagar in October. But we are doing the best we can to make the Nationals happen, right from finding a good indoor venue given the monsoon season to provisioning for pilot travel and stay.

In addition to partnering as the official Indian leg for world drone racing organizations we are also in talks with some major drone racing companies and leagues in the US and other countries for possible associations that would be mutually beneficial. We have also received early investor interests in IDRL based on our vision and projected growth strategy and will be making announcements on those fronts as the details are finalized. Among all the priorities though at IDRL, supporting the needs of our pilots is at the very top since they are the heart and soul of what makes IDRL possible.

India needs IDRL and the world needs it too, but it is our prime responsibility to do our best to reach out to as many organizations across the globe and spread the mission of IDRL.

Third Law Sports: Your first event will be held this October in Amalthea, IIT Gandhinagar. What are the details of this, who’s allowed to compete, how do they qualify, what size are drones and what are the different type of events?

Karan: We are really excited about our launch event in October since it will be the first national drone racing event in India!

This two day event will take place on the 22nd and 23rd of October on a dedicated field prepared for drone racing. A lot has already been planned out working in tandem with the team at Amalthea, IIT Gandhinagar. This includes race track preparation, accommodation for pilots and securing the needed permissions due to a nearby military base. The Amalthea team first approached us when IDRL was no more than just a landing page but they believed in our vision and trusted us to implement it at their institute’s festival. Amalthea is the annual festival at IIT Gandhinagar and we could not have had a better association for our launch.

The event will be both competitive and educational in nature involving activities for our pro pilots as well as the students of Amalthea, IIT Gandhinagar. All screened pilots who have registered on our website will be participating with their own setups in the 250 mm class i.e. quads from 210 mm to 255 mm will be deemed competitive. We still have to finalize the exact format of the races but we expect to cover all formats including time trials, bracket races and freestyle. The pro pilot races are scheduled for the first day.

The races are planned to be livestreamed over the internet and through social media channels.

We expect a lot of members from the Indian press and media who will be covering every minute of the event. There will be cash prizes for the top three pro pilots and goodies for the participants. We will have top level judges at the event who will analyze the video feed of each of the pilots to establish whether the pilot finished the race correctly or not. Since this is our first event we will be keeping things simple, but for future events we plan to use transponders and other high precision sensors to automate and speed up the analysis of a given race.

The second day will be dedicated entirely to the students of Amalthea, IIT Gandhinagar. There will be practice sessions, obstacle courses and some friendly races for students. The reason for such a schedule is that this event is meant to primarily create an awareness and inspiration for drone racing in India and most of the students who will be participating are expected to be beginners with no prior drone flying experience. We do not want to overwhelm them with all the details of FPV racing in a span of one day and there is a great likelihood that if they fly racing class drones then they will surely crash them. Flying a drone in itself is a skill hard to master and it gets even more difficult with racing!

Most of the IDRL pilot community will be staying back on the second day to help out with training the students and make sure that they’re first comfortable with the basics of self stabilized drone flight. We will be giving beginner level drones to the students and once they get a hang of flying those we will hold preliminary FPV simulator sessions with the remainder of training being held at a future date. IDRL will keep working closely with the students of Amalthea, IIT Gandhinagar post this event and perform similar training sessions across other institutes in the nation until we get many students to become real world drone racing pilots who can then compete in IDRL events and someday represent our nation at world drone racing championships.

Third Law Sports: How are you going about marketing the event; are you looking to draw in spectators or will this initial event be focused on the pilots and organisations?

Karan: There is a lot that needs to go into the marketing of our launch event. It’s an important event for us because it will introduce India to the world of drone racing and the world to Indian drone racing.

It will also set a precedent for all future IDRL drone racing events. We don’t want this to be a grassroots level event in any way since that was never the goal of IDRL. There have been grassroots events as I explained earlier but we are now moving beyond that.

Our marketing strategy is a summation of our social media presence, our media relations with local and international agencies, partnerships with major industrial houses, tech companies, MNCs and foundations in India as well as word of mouth publicity. We are also approaching tech startups who might want to align themselves with our message for innovation in the country with the “Make in India” movement of the Modi Government. Also by coincidence, Gandhinagar happens to be in Gujarat which is also the home state of our Prime Minister Narendra Modi. So it wouldn’t be unwise to use the cliche that this event is happening at the right place at the right time!

Marketing a small event alone takes lots of planning and execution, and something as big as ours is no small undertaking. We want to educate as many people as possible about drone racing, both the thrill of speeding in first person view and the educational upside of the sport. And we are all arms open to having as many as possible witness the event, whether they do so in person or online.

The more spectators we are able to garner through various channels the better, since we want all of them to see the future of drones and what an amazing sport this is.

There has been too much bad press on drones in India for the past two years and now is the time to overhaul it in a big way. We want to change perception and we want to be heard by those who don’t want to listen; the police, the civil aviation authorities, the naysayers and all those up there mindlessly signing drone bans and delaying the growth of an entire industry.

IDRL really wants to change things for the better and our team is working day in and day out to make that change happen. I should say that the IDRL community is blessed with a unique opportunity to change things in India and even a little help from all of you will go a long way for many years to come. Thank you and God Bless!

IDRL Pilots

L-R: Boomerang, Flying SID, Tiger

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