Rohit Sthapit, Raj Bikram Maharjan and Rojesh Shikhrakar engineers by education came together at a business idea competition. What they didn’t knew was that they would be become the first recognized drone based company to be registered in Nepal. In this interview Rohit shares the many challenges his team faced while setting up this company and his ambitious plans of creating a software for accurate and detailed map services in Nepal.
How was Airlift conceptualized?
The idea for Airlift came through bizcamp organized by the Vrobotics. This program was for startups who wanted to work on drones as a business. Airlift was conceptualized by three founders me, Rojesh and Sworup and another two of my friends joined in later for taking part in the competition.We met Raj Bikram Maharjan who was in the audience and liked our concept. He also became part of our team.
We got in to top three spot of the competition. At the beginning, we wanted to build the drones and use them for drone based delivery service. But we realized that it wouldn’t be viable for Nepal due to the laws and would be hard for us to get funding as well. So, we pivoted back and took ideas from different companies that are currently working with drones and came up with the idea to use drones for facilitating study and conservation of cultural heritage sites and architecture.
We registered ourselves as Avartan as an IOT company and although, we did few drone projects under this company we soon realized that we had to have a separate registration for taking government projects for drones. That’s how airlift came to being.
What is the current legal status of Airlift?
Airlift is legally registered under the company registrar. It took us 5 months to go through the entire registration process as legal compliance’s was complicated. Right now, I guess we are the first and the only recognized business providing by drones enabled service. So, there are two different and completely separate teams working under the same roof with Avartan working on the IOT projects and Airlift on drones
So what is the status of your current team from when you started?
At the beginning, we were 6 people when we took part in the competition. Slowly while we were working on various projects, the team got smaller as some had to leave the country or had a difference in interests.
What kind of projects have you undertaken under Airlift?
In the initial days when we were still figuring out the service application for drones, we did a mockup test of Yerthabahal, a popular bahal in Basntapur and built 3D models of all different kinds of structures. We also built a 3D model of the entire town of Sankhu. We didn’t take any service fee or generate any revenue for these projects.
The biggest project on cultural heritage that we have done is of Kesar Mahal which was our first rendering project. It was a joint project with John Sandy Associates Pvt. Ltd, Nepal Reconstruct Agency (NRA) and us, Airlift. It was very cool working with them.
Right now, another exciting assignment that we are looking forward to work is UNESCO project to conduct a survey of an area of Mustang.
What is the social change you are trying to bring?
Our objective with airlift is to use drones in new and innovative ways as we believe that drones have more use in countries like Nepal than other developed countries. So, we mainly focus on the 9th SDG which is industry, innovation and infrastructure. We first wanted to deliver goods to places that were not easily reachable by road with the tagline, “No Roads, No Problem”. But due to the circumstances and legal concerns, we had to pivot our business model, so we came up with another social aspect we could work for.
Being born and raised around culturally rich places like Basantapur and Patan, all three of us are emotional of our cultural and architectural heritage. After the earthquake we saw the place we love collapse, now we are working towards making these 3D models and VR for educational and recreational purposes using Drone and VR technology. This would help even students in far places experience our heritage site as being present at the place itself.
As of now what stage is your company at?
So Airlift is basically still in the startup phase, we have to do everything in the company. I look after the management part and the software side while the drones are taken care by Raj dai and Rojesh. We have adviser and conservational architect who work out of Basantapur area. We also have couple of advisors from Europe working in 3D reconstruction guiding us with the technology too. And we rope in help as and when we required.
What kind of investment have you injected into the company till date and where did you raise the money?
All the money invested in Airlift is from our own pockets. Till date we have spent about 17 lakhs including our assets i.e the drones. We have two drones; Dji-Phantom 4 pro and Dji-Inspire Pro and other special cameras.
What challenges did you face while setting up Airlift?
The most challenging part for Airlift as a drone operated company was the registration because there were a lot of restrictions set by the civil aviation and home ministry for security reasons. Another problem we faced was figuring out our revenue model. While approaching the clients, they didn’t know what we are doing and what kind of values would they able to gain from our services. Frankly speaking, we also didn’t understand the value we could bring to them. However, gradually, we looked into the market in India and it helped us in pricing out our services. We also took a lot of time to figure out Airlift, our business model and what kind of services we can deliver.
What service does Airlift offer?
Currently we are focusing on 3D land surveys, 3D reconstruction of heritage sites and 360 Tour. We are also exploring to use our technology for document cultural heritage sites and measuring the damage caused by earthquake.
Apart from this we do undertake commercial work as revenues from cultural heritage projects are not adequate to help us sustain our business.
What are your future plans?
We basically started with Drone Delivery and although we couldn’t pursue it at this time, we still want to take it up in the long run. We know that in the future, drone delivery will be needed and essential and that is our ultimate goal.
We are also researching on generating 3D of interior of the building along with the exterior. So that internal virtual tour could also be provided, currently we can do this using 360 images but soon we’ll be able to make actually 3D.
However our immediate plan is to create something similar to google maps. We want to make our own GIS platform wherein you can pin a particular house or building to its accurate location. Currently the challenge with google maps is that they aren’t very focused on the third world countries and those features aren’t existing in Nepal. We want to bring this technology of pinpointing a certain house or landmark with our system so that we can cater to ecommerce businesses and help them to reach their customers more easily. We want to build software as a service (Saas) based platform. This service could help government in urban planning and Nepal’s tourism sector as well.
What are your current needs?
We really need mentorship and counseling on business management. Since all of us are from engineering background we lack management skills. We are teaching ourselves some of the business aspects example I am learning to keep financial records. We are seeking to expand our technological capability we want to bring in advanced drones other than commercial DJI systems and lidar technology in Nepal which are very expensive, so access to finance is one of our primary need.
Do you consider yourself as a social entrepreneur?
The whole concept of 3D came from the cultural heritage education and preservation through digital heritage archives. We want to develop our infrastructure whilst still maintaining and promoting our cultural heritage to the younger generations. So we do consider ourselves as social entrepreneurs.
Interested in learning more about Airlift? You can reach Rohit Sthapit at email@example.com or reach out to their facebook page.