Bee Focus

Knowing drone based start-up in the Agri-tech sector

When we talk about start-ups, one expects a start-up to differ from others and to come up with innovative ideas which would bring a change to the society along with a solution. Incubees brings you an interview with Tarun Krishnakumar, Founder of Ulavan Agri-Tech, Goa based, a smart precision Drone service provider for all types of crops for spraying and harvesting.

Ulavan Agritech Services (OPC) Private Limited was incorporated in Goa, under the Companies Act, 2013 (18 of 2013) and the company is limited by shares. Their registered location is at FIIRE (Forum for Innovation Incubation Research, and Entrepreneurship), Fatorda, Salcete, South Goa, Goa, India.

 Incubees: Tell us about your ‘Drone based’ start-up, Ulavan Agritech Services?

Tarun Krishnakumar: Ulavan Agritech Services (OPC) Private Limited, is an Agritech service provider, specializing in drone based pesticide spraying, crop health monitoring, and drone based harvesting, at an affordable cost to farmers, for plantations like cashew, paddy, sugarcane, tea, and other tree based farms.

Ulavan was built to address pain points in Agro industry, such as unavailability of feasible solutions to spray pesticide on big trees, high human safety risk aversion, unavailability of labour/reliable workforce, and to encourage drones as an industry to provide more employment.  They have shown pesticide spraying demo to cashew, sugarcane, paddy, and vegetable farms in and around Goa, and Tea plantation in Nilgiris. The drone has a capacity of 10 litres and can autonomously spray an area of 1 acre in just 10 minutes.

Incubees: What makes your services unique and what competition do you see in India and globally?

Tarun Krishnakumar: We currently operate DGCA Pre-approved drone – AGRIbot, but we have automated the entire drone spraying process. We see this as an opportunity to reduce dependency on high skilled labour, and achieve employability at village level (irrespective of educational qualification). With our up-coming Autonomous Navigation, and collision avoidance modules, any drone platform can be used to spray particular crops autonomously.

As of May 2021, there is no other registered precision drone spraying company in India, and it is difficult to enter drone industry due to technological challenges, Government compliances and requirements, unavailability of trustable suppliers, increasing cost of drone ownership, skill labour unavailability, and lack of transparency in pricing, and it is a high accident prone industry.  With the latest drone laws out in March 2021, there are other drone manufacturing companies like Garuda aerospace and Marut Drone but they are not into service providing. Ulavan Agritech Services (OPC) Pvt Ltd, will be an Agritech Service provider and all these companies will be our complementary products.

Incubees: What are the challenges you see in the market at this point in time?

Tarun Krishnakumar: Drone is an unexplored industry especially for agriculture, and due to the new Drone laws, the cost of operation almost doubled. Secondly, there is no active department from the Government to process the compliance (DigitalSKY is not functional for over 7 months), Ulavan Agritech Services (OPC) Pvt Ltd have been waiting on the license for more than 7 months to begin operations. Over the last one and half years, because of the licensing issue, Team Ulavan had to bootstrap with funding, but has successfully built a supply chain for drone parts, hired resources and trained them, built a robust pipeline of interested clients.

 

Incubees: How was the idea budded? Tell us about your team and what inspires them.

Tarun Krishnakumar: In the year 2017, Dr Gaurang S Patkar, (Head of Department of Computer Engineering in Don Bosco College of Engineering Goa) proposed an idea of harvesting oil palm fruit using a drone for the International Competition on Oil Palm Mechanization (ICOPM 3) held at MPOB, Malaysia.

The Idea comprised a drone mounted with a cutting arm and a camera. It would fly up to the treetop, then using machine learning would identify ripe Oil Palm fruits. Depending on the ripeness it will either cut the fruit or move on to the next one. The concept was selected among the top 5 finalists in ICOPM 3 and received grants for prototyping the Idea. Dr Gaurang S Patkar, along with a group of final year students worked on building the prototype. The prototype had a fixed cutting arm and a camera. An image processing software was built that could distinguish between ripe and unripe oil palm fruits.

The prototype was built successfully within the limited time frame and budget. Although the prototype did not win the competition, the project revealed many unknown factors that would be useful for future research.

Fig: The Harvesting Drone Prototype

Dr Patkar has patented this idea. A research paper was also published titled “A Mechanized Harvesting and Automated Grading Technology for Oil Palm Fruit” summarizing the findings of the project.

 

Ulavan, directed under Mr. Tarun Krishnakumar, began with the students who conducted this research, Mr. Akshay Saraf (Pilot) and Mr. Rajdutt Kenkre (Hardware Designer). Their passion to take this project forward gave rise to Ulavan Agritech Services. Mr. Aditya Parab and Mr. Ravindra Naik, students from Don Bosco, Fatorda, got interested in Ulavan’s internship and joined the team. Except the founder, the rest of the team is Goan, and they learned from website building to product development by themselves.

Incubees: Where do you see your product/service reaching in the next five years?

Tarun Krishnakumar: We want to set up 100 micro entrepreneurship franchises in 100 villages by 2026. We are working on proof of concept to define how much a drone operator could make. Our Model is a scalable model, and with the proof of business, we aim to roll it to 100 villages from Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu. This metric should help us achieve employment to 1000 direct and indirect employees, and help farmers with labour outsourcing (a trend already prevailing in contract farming).

Incubees: Do you have plans to raise funding to grow your business or allow your business to grow organically?

Tarun Krishnakumar: Plan was not to raise funds before proof of concept, but due to unseen delay from Government in providing compliance, Ulavan is short on salaries and rent, and looking for a ticket of INR 75 Lacs. This will be for the salary expenses until the government compliance comes through, and new product development.

Incubees: What are the challenges you face as a start-up?

Tarun Krishnakumar: Being an Investment manager for early stage start-ups has really helped me understand the challenges upfront most of the times. Like when to fundraise, how to build the product, how to price it, how to take it to the market, and so on. But one challenge any founder faces is the timelessness from Government in terms of ecosystem support and statutory compliance.

For instance, Ulavan is waiting on Seed Grant and Salary Reimbursement support from Start-up Promotion Cell which was confirmed to be awarded for over 9 months now. Also, DGCA has not accepted nor rejected an application for Ulavan to become a Drone Operator for over 8 months now.

Without the Government fixing the timeline issue, I do not see a way out for start-ups in the Drone industry.

To know more, visit the website: https://ulavan.co.in/

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