StoriesAsia reporter Tapasya speaks to Anant Mittal, a third-year student of the country’s premier Indian Institute of Technology and one of the persons behind a startup that’s making spraying drones to disinfect large areas to fight the spread of COVID-19 disease.
A start-up, RacerFly, founded by Anant Mittal, a third-year civil engineering student at IIT Guwahati, has developed high-efficiency sprayer drones to sanitize public spaces during the COVID-19 pandemic. The drone technology was conceived to help agriculture through its smart system to spray pesticides and fertilizers on large farm areas in a short period.
RacerFly is a group of technology enthusiasts, three of whom are studying at IIT Guwahati. They claim that the drone system prepared by them can spray in less than 15 minutes what would otherwise take a person, who is manually spraying, 1.5 days. These drones can also be used at night.
Anant told us that he started off sometime in 2018 by providing robotics and RC (remote-controlled) parts to students in IIT Guwahati who were working on robotics projects. “RacerFly is e-commerce in itself. We provide other start-ups and IITs with technological parts. These parts (robotics parts) are not easily available. We create them, and it has been our source of revenue.” He added, “It was the money we earned through this recurring revenue that we invested in making our drones.”
“We started working on these drone-systems in December 2019. RacerFly does not have many members. We have around four permanent members. Shubham, a classmate of mine, has been a constant support. It’s through our regular discussions on technology that we get a lot of clarity in our process,” said Anant. He has decided to drop from his course at IIT Guwahati to dedicatedly work on RacerFly.
Anant adds, “These drones are mobile-application controlled and fully autonomous. They don’t need cleaners to manually disinfect large public spaces. In the present situation, that can be very helpful to disinfect roads, parks, highways, footpaths, and other public places to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”
The start-up has now approached the Assam and Uttarakhand governments, offering to provide these Sprayer Drone Systems to fight the Coronavirus pandemic.
Use for COVID-19 Prevention: Disinfectant Spraying
For disinfectant spraying, the roads or an area can be selected on Google Maps. The drone will spray automatically with a long-distance range of 3 kms, covering an area of more than 1.2 hectares in a single flight of 8 minutes. In one day, the drone can be used to sanitize an area of more than 60 hectares, according to Anant. The drones can record videos and can also be used to make announcements before the spraying starts.
These drone systems have the capacity ranging from 10 to 25 litres and can spray 2-4 litres per minute. RacerFly claims that one system can replace 20 workers. It can be operated from a range within three kilometers using a computer or a transmitter. One operator can control four drones simultaneously if they are spraying in the same location that is within range. This reduces the need for more operators. This is essential considering that the smallest workforce has to be used in the wake of the lockdown due to the COVID-19 outbreak in the country.
“An essential point,” adds Anant, “ is that these drones are autonomous and don’t need any pilot training. In the present scenario, we don’t have enough time to train pilots. These drones are ready to use and wouldn’t require the hassle of assembling parts.”
One critical feature is the portability of these drones. They are foldable and can be easily carried from one location to another. They can simply be folded, put inside a vehicle, and driven to the area of use.
The drones use real-time kinematics (RTK) technology, unlike other drones that use GPS. This reduces error in spraying when the drones have to be used in narrow spaces. RTK technology reduces the error to less than 0.1 meters, whereas in GPS, the error range is 3-30 meters. This avoids the overlapping of spray and saves 25-35% of the disinfectant that gets wasted.
RacerFly drones are crash-proof since they can be monitored to avoid obstacles in their way. They also maintain their height from the ground according to the terrain being covered.
Anant says that should they get approval from the government, they could be ready with 15-20 drone systems in the same number of days and upto 50 within a month. They will also provide initial training to teams of officials on how to operate the drones. A possible reduction in the price of these drone-systems for the government is also being considered.
“We do not have much time to think. The most efficient technology must be used to fight the outbreak. Our drones are the best for tackling this situation,” Anant says.
Use in Agriculture: Fertilizer and Pesticide Spraying
The lockdown due to COVID-19 has suspended agrarian work. The farming sector in India is expected to face huge losses as farmers suffer due to suspension of farm labour, lack of infrastructure, storage, and transport facilities.
RacerFly had initially developed these drones for agricultural use and were planning to launch them in April 2020. The drones can be used to spray fertilizers and pesticides on a wide range of crops and fruit trees.
The drones’ high-efficiency, precision, and terrain-following technology could reduce the cost of production for farmers while saving time and avoiding spray wastage.
Due to possible losses in the harvest season, farmers will be left without means to procure the next seed and other resources. The introduction of these drones could possibly reduce the stress on India’s agricultural economy. The government has already introduced some policy measures to ensure that Indian farmers do not suffer the brunt of COVID-19 lockdown. But more help might be required in terms of cheap infrastructure, in addition to measures like an extension of loan repayment time, unemployment wages, and crop insurance.
Tapasya is an independent journalist with StoriesAsia, a collective of freelance journalists in South and Southeast Asia.