Marut Drones: A High-Flying Drone Dream

Prem Kumar Vislawath’s entrepreneurial journey started with a lake near his parents’ residence in Hyderabad’s Gachibowli area. As the water body was teeming with mosquito larvae, the Lab32 entrepreneur realised that a comprehensive solution was needed to combat vector-borne diseases that are a leading cause of deaths in India every year.  

“What disturbed me was that around 9.7 million cases of mosquito-borne diseases are reported annually, leading to 40,297 deaths,” says Prem Kumar,the co-founder of Marut Drones, a Hyderabad-based startup that uses drones to spray mosquito killing repellent in the city’s massive lakes. 

Understanding the urgency of the problem, Prem Kumar wrote multiple times to the local Municipal authorities, seeking their assistance to rid the lake of the high density of mosquitoes. In response, the officials encouraged him to come up with a plausible solution to the longstanding problem. 

And, thus, Marut Drones was co-founded in March 2019 by Prem Kumar and his batchmates from IIT Guwahati: Sai Kumar Chinthala and Suraj Peddi. The startup has been largely bootstrapped but recently raised seed funding from Freshworks’ co-founders, Kiran Darisi and Parsuram Vijayshankar. Marut Drones was a part of the second cohort of T-Hub’s flagship Lab32 program in 2019.

The startup’s name has a mythological connotation. “Different interpretations of Maruts exist in Hindu Mythology, ranging from being storm deities to Gods of wind,” says Prem Kumar. “All stories, however, point to beings that are masters in the art of flying and owners of the skies, with great skills in navigating the world. The team found the name apt for their core area of business that involves drones.”

Multiple solutions

Since its inception, the startup has been attempting to solve multiple problems by applying data analytics, IoT (Internet of Things), AI (Artificial Intelligence) and machine learning to the fledgeling drone industry in India.

Mosquito eradication and AI-powered disease prediction system: Observing the difficult and time-consuming efforts of the municipal corporation to manually navigate hyacinth-infested water bodies to conduct anti-larvae activities—thus, risking employees to chemical exposure—prompted Prem Kumar and his team to experiment with automated drone technology. After around seventeen trials using drones, the once sceptical officials now recognised the value addition of the startup’s technological innovation to combat the problem. They realised that Marut Zap, the startup’s AI platform to identify the breeding ground for mosquitoes, has the potential to save the government’s time, effort and money. 
Purdue University, research partner for Marut and RICH hyd, for a project titled “Sensor technologies for real-time monitoring of mosquito populations through heat maps in India”. It aims to result in a healthy and positive atmosphere by reducing the cycles of larvae and limiting the transmission by vector control.

According to Prem Kumar, earlier, there were no data points that could be used as a reference to strategise the next location where the mosquito eradication activity could be carried out using drone technology. The challenge triggered the idea for building Marut Zap. Its embedded sensors trap mosquitoes within a 500 metres range and study the larval density to issue critical alerts on disease outbreaks. The startup’s dashboard displays the different breeds of mosquitoes, a key data point that facilitates intervention programs to tackle the problem. 

Marut ZAP became India’s first comprehensive solution involving mosquito surveillance, effective interventions and vibrant awareness campaigns based on emerging technologies and data based disease prediction. Further, we are developing AI-backed disease prediction systems to strengthen preventive measures. This solution helps eradicate mosquitoes , reduce disease prevalence, increase awareness improving health and socio economic aspects of the community.

Marut ZAP’s disease prediction system helps local authorities of potential disease outbreaks and take necessary precautions. Moreover, this technology reduces manual intervention, saving workers from harmful chemicals thereby creating a safe working environment.

The IoT-enabled device provides the municipal authorities key insights into the gender, type of mosquito larvae, density and the kind of disease they carry. The ground-breaking solution to solve the mosquito menace involves sending real-time data to the AI platform and identifying high-risk and low-risk areas using predictive analytics.  The founders claim that Marut Zap is the world’s ‘first commercially available mosquito eradication and AI-backed disease prediction system.’ 

ZAP platform based on our mosquito IoT sensor creates mosquito maps by location, gender, species and subspecies and offers real-time reports to identify high and low risk areas using predictive analytics for diseases like malaria, dengue and chikungunya. It issues critical alerts on emergency situations and disease outbreaks, facilitating intervention programs.

Intervention mechanisms are backed by AI powered customized drones and GPS tagged thermal fogging systems. Drones spray bio larvicide on lakes which are a major breeding habitat for mosquito larvae. 

Data can also be leveraged to work with local communities and conduct appropriate awareness campaigns. Overall, ZAP platform creates a comprehensive vector borne disease control mechanism.

The platform is designed for disease prediction and location-wise eradication of diseases such as dengue and malaria. The startup’s technology can cover 6.7 hectares in less than one day, down from 300 person-days. Marut Drones has already covered more than 4,730 hectares of lakes and nalas in the city of Hyderabad. 75,000+ acres of anti larvae spraying has been conducted over the last 14 months in Greater Hyderabad, Telangana, India. This was accomplished with cost savings of 90% and 77% lesser time, leading to 40% reduction in mosquito larvae.

Enabling intelligent agriculture: The founders of Marut Drones identified the agricultural sector as a potential prospect and fastest growing sector to extend drone solutions. They observed that Indian farmers are prone to TB, cancer and other illnesses, as they are regularly exposed to harmful pesticides and fertilisers. Farmers also have to contend with issues such as soil salinity, the paucity of data on soil and crop health, among other challenges. Therefore, Prem Kumar and his team developed Marut Agri, a comprehensive tech-based solution. It uses data analytics and machine learning to facilitate targeted spraying and reduce the harmful side effects on manual labour. The mechanism of the drone begins with mapping of the area, followed by spraying/fertilization. The process continues by mapping the area to know the potentiality and result of the crop. Lastly the output is generated in Thermal or Red Green Blue (RGB) format.  

created by dji camera 
Crop Monitoring and Diagnostics work with ICRISAT and Developing protocols for diagnosis of major pests and diseases and targeted drone spraying in Paddy with PJTSAU scientists.   

Intelligent Spraying Drone  to formulate a standard operating procedures (SOPs) based on scientific evidence along with the World Economic Forum and the Telangana Department of Information Technology (ITE&C), the PJTSAU working in five crops that will be grown in five different districts across to conduct research work at Rice (RRC, Rajendranagar), Cotton (RARS, Warangal), Groundnut (RARS, Palem) and Redgram (ARS, Tandur) and also in selected farmers fields during Vaanakalm 2020 and Yasangi 2020-21

A14AI – AI for Agricultural Innovation with WEF and Govt. of Telangana

It has resulted in increased crop yield, enhanced efficiency of resources and low pesticide residue levels in food. 

Scalable afforestation: Seed Rains, the company’s scalable model of reforestation is yet another product that aims to create a sustainable future for the world. According to Prem Kumar, in a bid to identify areas that require afforestation, drones and AI survey the deforested areas as the first step. Next, the company determines the type of trees to be grown based on various parameters like soil, climate, indigenous seed varieties and historical growth data using AI. The drones are then deployed with seed balls that sow around 15,000 seeds per day from height between 50- 100  feet. “For years, people have been planting trees without possessing scientific data on their height, canopy and survival rate,” says Prem Kumar. Adding more light to the data generation “We also get the geo-coordinates that enable us to conduct periodic surveys to determine how many of these trees survive. The data is procured in a digitalised form that allows remote analysis and monitoring of the data points.” He adds that the seed balls are a mix of cow dung and fertilisers and can be effective for up to 45 days. The development of the Seed Rains product by Marut Drones is being supported by the Pernod Ricard India Foundation and the CIE-IIITH. Soil and Location are the key factors looked into before the deployment of seedballs through drones to ensure the penetration of seedballs in depth. MarutGro has significantly increased the survival rates of planted seeds and surveillance to ensure healthy growth. It also promotes accessible reforestation in areas deemed hazardous and difficult for manual planting.

Supplying medicines; saving lives: The startup’s medical delivery drone is accessible through a mobile app to enable the drones’ penetration in remote, inaccessible areas where primary healthcare providers can get daily supplies at the press of a button. Among supplies that are delivered are blood, vaccines, diagnostic medical samples and long-tail medicine.

An MoU has been signed by RICH, PHFI, and Marut Dronetech for pioneering drone usage for delivery of medical and other emergency supplies across locations in Telangana and to later expand across the country. A pilot program will soon be underway to assess the technical feasibility of the product.

The delivery works on a hub-and-spoke model. The team receives a message based on the inventory needed. It is loaded at the central hub, and the drones take off after the regular pre-flight tests and checks of wind conditions, audio pilot systems and GPS tracker. The coordinates are fed into the systems, and the health examiner picks up the vials at the drop-off point.The Directorate General of Civil Aviation, provided “beyond visual line of sight” (BVLOS) exemption from current drone regulations, in that, apart from flying drones beyond the visual line of sight, they don’t require the no permission no take off (NPNT) clearance before each flight, or unique identification numbers (UIN).

Exploring new paradigms to beat COVID-19

Cities around the world have used drones to deliver essential goods or medical supplies. In the age of the Coronavirus, there is a constant need to supply sanitizers, masks and Personal Protection Equipment (PPE). Drones can enable the swift and efficient delivery of these items directly to hospitals and quarantine zones. “Marut Drones, like a few other innovation leaders, will continue to help leverage such technology to ensure that it keeps improving our safety and our lives,” says Prem Kumar.

In the unprecedented times we are living in, frontline workers fighting COVID-19 need to leverage smart technology to deliver swift and efficient contactless aid to victims of the pandemic. Taking a cue from the successful deployment of drones in South Korea and China, Marut Drones has taken significant steps to explore new ways of using their core technology to control the further transmission of the virus among the public.

The company has partnered with the Government of Telangana to deploy drones for various COVID-related applications, such as disinfection and sanitisation; movement tracking; thermal analysis; medical delivery of critical supplies; and surveillance of quarantined areas.

Marut Drones has used drones to spray disinfectants in contaminated zones and in large scale public spaces, such as airports, SEZs, warehouses, parks and railway stations. The startup has observed that drones cover fifty times more area than traditional methods of disinfecting places. One of the primary advantages of using drones for this purpose is the reduced workload on sanitation workers who are also protected from further exposure to COVID-19.  The drones have the capacity to carry up to 10 litres of disinfectant, cover about 20 kilometres and spray 200 litres a day. The drones have successfully disinfected 1900kms using 9800 litres of chemical spanning across eight districts of Telangana. Their cost-effectiveness is a bonus.

In another use case, the startup’s drones are calibrated with infrared cameras that test human body temperature in crowded places. Thus, drones have come to the rescue of personnel conducting temperature checks, who could otherwise be at risk of exposure to the virus.  

The medical delivery drones routinely supply critical medical necessities and ensure minimum wastage of medical resources in this hour of crisis. Marut Drones has come to the aid of affected households that are in dire need of medicines and other supplies during the quarantine period. Since most of the blood banks and testing facilities are in urban areas, Telangana’s rural belt is bearing the brunt of the lockdown. In such trying circumstances, the drones deployed by the company ensure timely availability of blood, medicines and other critical supplies to save lives. “Drones have the ability to reduce unnecessary human contact and speed up the process significantly,” says Prem Kumar. “It was observed during our recent trials that drones covered a distance of 12 km in 18 minutes, which is 80 times faster than traditional delivery.”

Yet another innovative use of drones undertaken by the startup is to help in the surveillance of citizens, especially in heavily quarantined areas. The Drone Patrol Team can carry out this task with the cameras installed on the drones. The company’s Drone Patrol Team regularly surveys towns and districts to ensure that there are no public gatherings and other lawbreakers who could potentially transmit the infection on a large scale. The drones are equipped with cameras and speakers, enabling the patrol team to make announcements and issue warnings to the general public. 

Thus, the Coronavirus pandemic has put the spotlight on the benefits of leveraging drone technology. The technology’s beneficial use cases have demonstrated that drones are relatively simple and inexpensive to operate and can be quickly mobilised across regions to control the spread of infection across the country. Crucially, the intelligent and effective use of drone technology during the nation’s lockdown has helped in spreading awareness of COVID-19. 

Drones have also presented a unique perspective on how to reimagine the flawed supply chain in the healthcare sector that is riddled with challenges such as shortage of stocks and wastage of resources. 

The ingenious use of drones has also displayed the spirit of innovation required by startups to cope with the tough times. According to Prem Kumar, India will stand at an advantage if it continues to adapt to drone technology at a relatively early stage of the pandemic.

How the model works

At the outset, the startup maps the zones and their unique requirements to enable the hassle-free customisation of drones for various purposes. The company currently owns eight drones and also has a network from where it sources drones from other locations to fulfil its deployment requirements. According to Prem Kumar, although the company is currently operating around fourteen drones, it has the capability to extend it up to 60 drones, if required.

The drones’ deployment to deliver various services works based on a hub-and-spoke model. When Marut Drones’ team receives a message requesting for inventory supply, the inventory is loaded at the central hub. As the next step, the coordinates are fed into the system after which the drones take off. However, before take-off, routine pre-flight tests are conducted to check for wind conditions, autopilot systems and the functionality of the GPS tracker. Once the drone arrives at the destination, a health examiner collects the vials at the drop-off point. 

Tackling the challenges and the way forward

Marut Drones has gone from strength to strength since its inception. The founders recently featured in the coveted Forbes 30 under 30 list. However, despite creating a massive impact on the ecosystem and receiving accolades for their path-breaking innovation, Prem Kumar and his partners have also faced challenges along the way. For instance, funding, nascent technological, human resources, sceptics etc are among the longstanding issues the startup faces till date. 

Another challenge faced by Marut Drones—that is peculiar to all players in the drone industry—is the regulatory hurdles. “As of today, payload drones are not allowed,” explains Prem Kumar. “We can deploy payload drones during these times due to the Telangana government’s support for procuring special permissions and approvals.”

The entrepreneur believes regulatory hurdles will ease up shortly due to the growing popularity of drones in State municipalities for disinfection and other purposes. He expects the regulatory authorities to offer clearer regulatory guidelines and sops to drone companies in terms of simplified regulations and other concessions. Drones industry is emerging as the fastest growing sector by providing solutions equipped with advancement in technology. 

Further, the sudden emergence of COVID-19 also put a spoke in the startup’s funding scenario. Marut Drones had geared up to raise a fresh round of funding in Dec-May 2021, which will now have to be deferred.

Prem Kumar laments the paucity of talent in the industry as commercial drones are a relatively new area of technology. However, to counter the problem, Marut Drones has partnered with the Telangana government to start a drone training academy to create a talent pool that will be beneficial to the larger drone ecosystem.

Marut Drones currently covers eight districts in the Telangana region alone. However, efforts are on to explore partnerships with municipalities in other states as well. The Public Works Department has connected Marut Drones with the municipalities in Assam, Rajkot, Ahmedabad and Raipur, which have expressed interest in the company’s drone services for mosquito eradication. The company is trying to scale based on its bandwidth, available resources and other contributing factors.

The COVID-19 situation has shown the importance of drones and it has created opportunities in the drone industry by promoting contactless operations. Prem Kumar believes that the work in these times will build recognition, marks appreciations  and help in raising investments.

Prem Kumar hopes to see more support from stakeholders in the startup ecosystem. He credits T-Hub for providing access to the Telangana government and for the opportunities to network with peers and industry players. 

Amidst the socio-economic disruptions caused by this pandemic, the common cause of finding a solution to COVID-19 has brought together individuals, institutions, communities, governments and the society at large. 

Prem Kumar is of the view that the pace of innovation in the drone industry calls for the continued support from the government and credible influencers, such as Ratan Tata and Anand Mahindra and Bill Gates, to name a few. Further, he adds, the drone industry should have easy access to grants from iconic philanthropic institutions such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as such grants will enable companies such as Marut Drones to contribute more effectively to the society at large.

 “With a sense of optimism, we firmly believe that technology and ingenuity can help the global population to fight and defeat this viral attack. Our startup is prepared to combat this crisis in a way that we know the best—through drones,” concludes Prem Kumar.

Even as the world awaits with bated breath for COVID-19 to leave just as suddenly as it came, the social good contributed by startups such as Marut Drones will hold them in good stead for posterity.

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