Thanos: A Pioneer in Agriculture Drones

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    Co-founders of Thanos, Pradeep Palelli and Prathyush Akepati (R-L)

    Hyderabad-based Thanos is an aerial solutions provider that uses drones to provide innovative solutions to conventional problems. Co-founded in 2016 by Pradeep Palelli and Prathyush Akepati, it focuses on 3 core themes: automation, intelligence and transportation. Agriculture is one of the key areas where it currently offers aerial automation products and solutions. “There is a lack of skilled drone pilot operators and skilled technicians for assembly and repairs as this is a completely new industry and new technology,” Pradeep, who is also the CEO of Thanos Technologies, informs Rural Marketing’s N. Bobo Meitei in a telephonic interview. Excerpts of the interview.

    What motivated you to launch Thanos? Give us a picture of the journey so far. 

    Technology was something I was always interested in. I come from an engineering background. I did my bachelor’s in Electronic and Instrumentation from BITS Pilani, Rajasthan, and passed out in 2008. After a brief stint in the software industry, I went looking for something which was on the hardware technology side. So I joined a startup, but I was always on the technology side and not on the management side. That’s when I got exposed to a lot of new technologies that were there. During my time at one of my previous startups in 2015, I heard what  was happening in the world of drones and how, almost every other week some new Drone Application was announced in some part of the world. It was a very new and exciting technology. Although most of the new applications were more for personal purposes and for fun,  there were a lot of serious applications  too. That’s how Thanos was created, in 2016, keeping in mind what drones could do in terms of better information generation, analytics and automating certain physical activities. That’s how we got into this new and exciting domain.

    Kindly explain the portfolio of drones you have been catering to the market. What are your best performing drones?

    SYENA-H10

    Right now, in agriculture we have only one product and that’s a 10-litre capacity Spraying drone named SYENA-H10. In light of the new guidelines announced in January 2022, every drone needs to be certified as per QCI-issued drone pilot scheme and we are currently in the process. At this point, commercially, we are yet to launch and start selling this drone in light of the new certification process. But when that’s done in 2 to 3 months, this will be our only product that will be on the market for the time being. We plan to launch more products of different capacities and different features in future. Having said that before the regulations, we did demonstrate this drone and received very good feedback. 

    Precision in agriculture is a trend even the Prime Minister has been calling for. Kindly give us a picture on how the use of drones can transform agriculture in India.

    Anything to do with drones, when it comes to agriculture, broadly comes in two categories: Automation and Intelligence. Any kind of camera or sensor that can give you any kind of data or insights comes under the intelligence part. It could be a normal RGB camera or a multispectral camera. What you do once the data comes out, how to process for what application is up to the user. For example, to understand the health of your field is one of the basic applications in Agri-Intelligence. In a higher-end application, it isn’t just to understand health, but also to gather more detailed data such as Physical (Phenotyping) traits and Genetic traits (Genotyping). Another practical application that is currently active is to settle insurance claims by understanding the damage from climatic or a weather-related disaster. This is something that comes under the intelligence part. 

    When you try to take action, that’s where automation comes into picture. You gather all the data, the analytics you have done. All this is to counter a problem or to improve the status quo. Either it is a lack of proper growth or pest attack or whether there is too much weed and so on and so forth. Once you have identified the issue, you need to take action. Our current area of focus is on agri automation. We manufacture drones for agricultural spraying purposes. Pretty much anything in liquid form could be sprayed. It could be insecticide, pesticide, herbicide or even fertilisers. Of late, there are fertilisers in liquid forms. With a slightly different attachment and spraying mechanism, even granules and seeds can be sprayed or broadcasted. These are all the applications which can be managed with the drones we manufacture.

    How much difference is there between the spraying done manually and the one done by drone?

    Lots of things are difficult to put quantitatively. But some quantitative figures based on our experience is that the efficiency or the rate of work is 6-8 times higher. If it is 1 acre per hour with manual spraying, but with drones you can do 6-8 acre per hour. So there is efficiency in terms of work. Another is, because of the efficient and uniform nature of the spraying, you can save chemicals as well as you can reduce the wastage of chemicals. I wouldn’t say you can use less chemicals than the quantity prescribed by the company. Also, you spray in a much more efficient manner, it could result in quicker and better solving of the problem, it could be pest attack, it could be micronutrient deficiency. So that can result in better yields and better outputs. Another quantitative benefit from the environmental standpoint is the reduction of water volume by upto 95%. With a knapsack sprayer you could use 120-180 or upto 200 litres, here we use 8-10 litre per acre. And, of course, there are the intangible benefits when it comes to health hazards as most people practising manual methods of spraying don’t use any personal protection. You could say with drone spraying, you are minimising or eliminating health hazards associated with conventional spraying since the human is standing outside the field at the time of spraying.

    The government has recently slapped a ban on the import of drones, except for use in some sectors. What kind of change has brought to the agriculture drone sector?

    There are various reasons why import of drones were banned among which National Security and Data Security are among the most important ones. Previously, different kinds of drones used to be imported without check and control on what kind of software and where the data was going or if it was connected to the internet or if the other server was located in another country. Quite a few issues were there behind the ban. From our point of view, as a manufacturer, it may certainly give us an edge initially compared to the cheap imports. But eventually everyone has to compete in a levelled playing field when it comes to the global market. You have to compete with the best in the global industry and you have to prove the technology. In the short term, however, this ban can give some opportunity to the local manufacturing companies to capture a certain share of the market and to come up with newer technologies and compete with other foreign companies going forward.   

    Despite the ban, imports of components are still allowed. How much do you rely on imported components?

    At present, more than 90% of our components are imported. Slowly we are trying to indigenise a few based on the raw materials that are available in India. Right now, the price point of certain components made in India may be something that is forcing us to import from other countries. But as the industry goes, the volume also grows thus leading to the local components becoming more competitive. There are some parts that we have started manufacturing locally with a few known vendors. 2 to 3 years from now, more than 50% of the components will be manufactured locally, barring the electronics. 

    Certain Govt-issued SOP has to be followed while flying a drone. Who ensures that it is followed? Are there any challenges?

    SOP is something every operator needs to stick to. We are more of a manufacturer than a service provider. However, given our close to 4 years of field operations that involved technology demonstrations and commercial pilots over 3500 acres and given our understanding of the standards and procedures, we train our customers on how to operate safely and efficiently. In addition to adhering to SOP, operators also need to obtain drone pilots certificates from DGCA-authorised Remote Pilot Training Organisations (RPTO). We do connect our customers with some of our partner RPTOs so that they can get the drone pilot certificate. 

    Kindly share some of the challenges you experience in the sector. How much growth do you expect the sector to gain?

    Until a few months ago, there were regulatory restrictions. But now the government has understood what drones can do, not only in defence but also in the civil and commercial sector and hence they have come up with several favourable policies. Going forward, one of the key challenges is going to be more on the lack of capital. Another important challenge is the lack of skilled drone pilot operators and skilled technicians for assembly and repairs as this is a completely new industry and new technology. That’s why the government is working with the Ministry of Skill Development and we are also  tying up with skill development institutes, agriculture universities and polytechnic students so that there can be a proper resource pool of candidates that can be a part of this growing industry.  

    Read more: Agriculture Drones: Enabling Precision Agriculture

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