Skylark Drones expects its cutting edge drone technology to make it a leading player in India and amongst the top across the globe by 2025.
Mrinal Pai and Mughilan Thiru Ramasamy were still in college when they started building unmanned aerial vehicles, as drones were called in 2011-12, as part of a team to participate in international competitions. They won several times, including once in NASA in 2013. Though they were doing this for the passion of learning, they were constrained by the need for sponsorship, which was hard to come by since they had no business model! The potential for entrepreneurship was evident, even back then, as they made money through workshops for college and school students on how to build models, and used the fee they received for their projects, going on to win a systems integration award.
This not only gave the two confidence, but they also felt that returning to India and starting a venture would be of greater use than pursuing a PhD in Purdue University that they had been offered. “There were three fundamental reasons that influenced our decision,” explains Mughilan. First, the technology would be useful for the society in many ways; second, they had a passionate and good team; and third, good engineers need good opportunities to solve problems. India had good talent, but lacked good jobs. At 23 years of age, the two felt that they could train the people and fill the gap by providing the right opportunity.
Coming Full Circle
The two returned to India and started Skylark Drones in 2014 in Mughilan’s uncle’s garage with no capital. The two again did workshops for colleges and schools and earned Rs 5 lakhs in three to four months. “Earning is one thing, but spending wisely, quite another. We weren’t very wise,” admits Mughilan. Though they got all the fundamentals such as registering the company right, they were not good at financial planning. They also realised that though they knew the applications of the technology, they did not quite have an understanding of how all it could be used.
However, since different industries had a need for their UAVs, they built a website highlighting their capabilities and achievement that would draw the potential users. They followed up on each enquiry. “During this period, we got several offers for incubation which we rejected. In hind sight, that was a very good decision as we learnt a lot from our customers, who are the direct users of our technology,” he explains.
“We demonstrated a centralised server for granting permission to drones sometime in February 2018, and by August, a policy had been drafted and a digital sky that will ease this up is being built.”
Building on Its Learnings
By 2015, this Bengaluru-based company had figured out its model based on these interactions and lays it down into these three critical aspects: Why – Because drones enable a reach of 30 km, transmitting and connecting data from 100 m height; Improves productivity by reducing manual intervention; and provides a safe way to access risk-laden places. Based on this, they identified four industries where they have built a good base, serving leading companies in each of them, infrastructure, mining, solar and agriculture.
The second question was – How. More than needing the drones themselves, the customers need data and analytics solutions, which is where Skylark is now focused on. It caters to the nuanced, niche needs of its customers, undertaking tasks that only drones can do, culling the data and providing insights that can aid in strategy development.
One of the early customers Skylark had was the Defence, but since it requires a different approach, the duo decided not to pursue that seriously. The company had also decided to be profitable from day one.
Building the Organisation
The team is very important, especially considering that Skylark was in a very nascent space with regulatory challenges. Therefore, its criterion for choosing its team have been those who are passionate about engineering, are patient and not looking for early rewards and want to build for the sake of it. The company gives them the opportunity to do good work that motivates them to do better work. Currently, it has a team of 30 – 35 people focused on revenues as they are also rewarded proportionately.
The company raised a seed round in 2015 to kick-start the venture, but is not looking for further investments believing more in stable growth.
Doing What it Takes
The eco-system is still nascent, and the company faces challenges on two fronts – the level of awareness amidst the potential customers, and the regulatory environment. Mughilan says that Skylark technology is of global level and with time, it expects to expand to international markets. It has already executed projects in the UK.
Skylark works with a network of freelance pilots and drone operators. These operators collect data based on customer requirements, and Skylark provides the analytics based on it. Currently, India sees around 5,000-7,000 industrial drones up in the air. Mughilan believes there is scope for 50 lakh drones for logistics, inspections and surveillance in India alone by 2030.
He believes the challenges are also fairly solvable. “In regulations, the primary concern is of security, privacy and safety,” he points out. So Skylark developed a model and demonstrated to the relevant government department how a centralised server can provide the required permission for take-off of drones if they fulfil predefined criteria. “We demonstrated this sometime in February 2018, by August, a policy had been drafted and a digital sky that will ease this up is being built,” Mughilan says.
Ready for Take-Off
The market is poised for growth. As regulatory framework becomes clearer and the benefits evident to the users, there is nothing stopping Skylark from growing. “If we play it smart, we can remain leaders. We already serve large names in our target industries such as L&T and Vedanta. We are building scalable systems and target to be the largest application company in India and one of the largest globally by 2025,” Mughilan says as he signs off.
Company: Skylark Drones
Year of incorporation: 2014
Founders: Mrinal Pai and Mughilan Thiru Ramasamy
Focus: Drone solutions
Concept in Brief:
Mrinal Pai and Mughilan Thiru Ramasamy were offered PhD in Purdue, but they turned it down, wanting to give talented engineers with the opportunity to work in cutting-edge technologies. They had already been building unmanned aerial vehicles and winning international recognition, and they knew that it was of great use across different industries. With seed funding, the two set up Skylark in a garage, and have been able to bag marquee customers across the industries they serve in. The company has a lean team of 30-35 members and operates through a pilot network for the actually flying of drones and collection of data. Skylark does analytics on the data to facilitate better understanding and developing of strategies for its clients. It has also forayed into the UK, and expects to become one of the leading drone services company globally by 2025. It has ensured profitability from day one and is not actively seeking funding.