Digital Technologies Are Key to Governing Robots and Drones

By Ritesh Gupta

Frameworks and platforms must be built out to control the machines in our skies and our homes.


It would certainly be an understatement to say there are many exciting things afoot in the technology realm. There has been a tectonic shift throughout the last decade, with many emerging technologies making their presence felt, most notably involving robotics, drones, blockchain and artificial intelligence. While each technology is important in its own right, I would like to specifically focus on robotics and drones in this column.

Throughout the last few years, there have been significant strides made in the robotics and drones space that have resulted in these devices becoming increasingly smart, collaborative and mobile. Recent developments in ROS and FlytOS to Distributed ROS have made it possible for such machines to not only collaborate better, but also make more informed decisions. The advent of 5G will only aid real-time data transfer, thus enabling even faster decision making by such devices.

The development and affordability of many required sensors, like LIDAR, magnetometers, high-resolution cameras and servo motors, along with advancements on the software side, particularly in deep learning and image analytics, will enable robots and drones to make more intelligent, autonomous and real-time mission-critical decisions. As a result, these devices are now moving from being expensive and experimentative toys to legitimate machines that can solve real-world challenges in several industry segments. A few examples are:

  • Industrial and Manufacturing: Robots can help to expedite assembly lines and increase output.
  • Agriculture: Drones can help farmers with such tasks as monitoring farms, spraying pesticides, and detecting animals’ locations and movements.
  • Pandemics and Calamities: During pandemic outbreaks and other calamities, drones and robots can play a substantial role in arial sanitization, monitoring public spaces and facilitating appropriate social-distancing norms.
  • Surveillance and Safety: Robots and drones are being increasingly used for security and surveillance. They can also utilize computer vision to provide real-time alerts regarding possible intrusions or break-ins into homes, offices or industrial plants.
  • Warehouse and Material Handling: Smart robots are now replacing automated guided vehicles in warehouses for material transportation and handling, as they can easily identify goods and also move around warehouses while avoiding obstacles.
  • Last-Mile Delivery: With beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) technology, robots and drones can facilitate last-mile delivery, which has always been an expensive part of the supply chain and delivery ecosystem.
  • Retail Stores: Robots can make an impact across the value chain, from assisting customers with their shopping experience to inventory management and integration via ERP systems.

The Consequences of Unregulated Technologies
While the potential of these technologies is undeniable, it is important to understand the infrastructure and regulatory frameworks required to facilitate their optimal use. There have been several instances of players acting in bad faith who have disrupted public utilities or infrastructure. For instance, if we look only at airports, there have been several examples of operations being impacted by unsafe and unregulated drone activity.

London’s second-busiest airport, Gatwick Airport, was  severely disrupted due to drone sightings on three consecutive days. This resulted in schedules of more than 700 flights going into disarray during the extremely busy Christmas season. Similarly, more than  43 flights were put on hold and nine were diverted at New Jersey’s Newark Airport, due to two drones operating at 3,500 feet nearby. Incidents like these have also been  reported at Singapore’s Changi airport.

Digital-First Regulatory Frameworks Are the Need of the Hour
Clearly, there’s a need to build a regulatory framework that is digitally architected, scalable, robust and secure so it can be deployed quickly and accessed easily by an ecosystem’s various constituents. A digital-first mindset is essential in seamlessly bringing together the different moving parts required to create the necessary public infrastructure and policies that accelerate the possibilities fuelled by drones and robotics.

For instance, India’s Ministry of Civil Aviation has instituted a platform called  Digital Sky, which is intended to regulate the operations of drones in that country. This enables drones that have registered with the platform and have the “no permission, no takeoff” (NPNT) protocol to fly in airspaces demarcated as green zones (free airspace) and yellow zones (controlled airspace).

As drones or robots becoming increasingly accessible, there will be a great uptick in the amount of data generated by their usage. Being able to sift through this information to extract intelligent insights will be key to optimizing the user experience, recognizing security loopholes and more accurately predicting malicious incidents. Toward this end, advanced analytics can be combined with a privacy-by-design approach to ensure that all data related to machines and their operators is secure.

An Ecosystem Designed to Regulate, Not Limit
Lastly, as we approach a future that will see drones and robots become quickly ubiquitous, it becomes important to take a humane approach in designing an ecosystem that is technology-friendly, is open to change and fosters new ideas. Such a system would be able to have an end-to-end view that recognizes the good actors from the bad and is cognizant toward the needs of the varied ecosystem players. The future will most certainly be delivered by drones and robots, but it is about time we start building out the frameworks and platforms that will control these machines in our skies and our homes.

Ritesh Gupta is the VP and CTO of product engineering services at  Happiest Minds Technologies. In this role, he is responsible for leveraging disruptive technologies to help clients create future-ready products and platforms. He is closely involved in the company’s Solutions and IP program, which requires him to work with clients in defining their product roadmaps. In a career spanning almost 23 years, Ritesh has worked in several areas and is keenly invested in technologies like machine learning, cloud computing, satellite communications, computer vision, robotics and drones. He continues to be passionate about leveraging technology to help create measurable business value.