When U.S. fashion retailer Aeropostale opened its first store in India this month, it used drones to promote the launch.
Three drones with Aeropostale signs attached to them flew around SelectCity Walk, a swanky mall in New Delhi.
New York-based Aeropostale not only became the first company in India to use the drone-based advertising, but by doing so, it also redefined the use of billboards.
Aeropostale made advertisements fly. It made them mobile. It brought ads to where consumers were rather than wait for them to come.
A month earlier, researchers at the University of Surrey in the U.K. came out with a report that labeled Delhi as the most polluted city in the world. They were late.
Three high-school students, living in India’s capital, did not need others to tell them what was wrong with their city. They were already out with an experimental drone to test air quality in New Delhi. Their dream is to one day let people check for air pollution — on their own — using drones.
A startup in Gurgaon — a city connected to New Delhi and part of the National Capital Region (NCR) — is using drones to take pictures and videos of “New India” — cities, towns and villages that are changing and becoming commercial.
Here is the most interesting part: The government of India banned unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) from the country’s skies in October 2014. No private citizen or commercial entity is allowed to use a drone in a public space or for private use.
Yet, despite the ban, the flying robots are visible everywhere across India.
What may appear as an underground or uncontrolled movement is actually unmasking a new reality about India and drones.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, an organization focused on global conflicts, India has become the largest importer of drones in the world. Between 1985 and 2014, about one in five drones (22.5 percent) produced in the world went to India.
While nobody knows what happened to the drones, it’s not a huge stretch to assume that the bulk of them went into national security.
However, when you step closer, you end up shaking your head almost in disbelief. Despite the ban, both the government and private sector are using drones for all kinds of civilian applications across India.
The government of Andhra Pradesh, a southern state in India with Hyderabad as its capital, is using drones to find land for farmers that had to sacrifice their property when a single state got divided up into two states. The government is relying on drones to fulfill a promise.
In Srinagar, capital of the northern state of Jammu & Kashmir, police are using UAVs to study and manage traffic. They are hoping that the videos captured by drones will coach traffic police to address congestion.
In Lucknow — capital of Uttar Pradesh, one of the most populous states, also located in North India — police are using drones to watch over and control protests. The drones are equipped with pepper spray, although some observers have expressed concerns about suppression of freedom of speech.
State-owned GAIL (Gas Authority of India Ltd.) is using drones as security guards to watch over its pipeline network across the country.
NHAI (National Highway Authority of India) is planning to use drones for “project management” — watching highway construction in real time.
As people increasingly move into taller buildings, firefighters in the city of Mumbai are looking to drones and robots to assist in emergencies. The drones are seen as the first responder as well as public alert system. Despite some security incidents, in this case, robots are seen as the rescuers.
It’s not just the government or state-owned enterprises that are flying drones.
NavStik Labs, a startup in Pune in western India, has developed a drone flight-control system that, like a commercial autopilot system, may be used by any commercial drone system. That’s huge because, NavStik Labs’ technology could anyone a drone pilot.
More on Indian Robotics and Drones:
In 2014, as India was getting ready to elect a new prime minister, a group of students from the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi used a drone to enter politics. They used it to drop fliers with political messages on various parks.
What about the regulation that made India ban drones for the private and commercial sectors in the first place?
According to various sources, the government is still working on it. They suggests that the government is taking cues from the U.S., and as a result, may require that a drone in the civilian space be operated by a person at all times and possibly registered.
Such measures may work for the U.S., but will they work in India where, despite the government ban, drones are flying nonstop?