Niharika Kolte’s foray into entrepreneurship has an interesting back story. After completing her bachelor’s in commerce, she started her career as an analyst and worked in the Mergers & Acquisitions (M&A) and RE space at PWC and KPMG for over five years before starting up.
While thinking about the deal cycle, she realized that the technical due diligence of an M&A deal takes the longest to complete and is the most boring phase of a deal for an investment banker.
She wondered if a company were selling GWs of solar assets, technical due diligence would only be done on a random sampling basis. For example, a few solar panels would be selected for testing – this meant one would not have true and accurate data for the entire plant.
“I researched the potential of drones to fix this problem for a long time. I figured that drones could help not only minimize the time taken for inspections, but also add immense value to operations and maintenance of any industrial asset – in a safe, pocket-friendly manner,” she says.
It became evident that a single tool can be deployed for multiple use cases across industries ranging from agriculture and real estate to energy, chemicals, and entertainment.
This realization led to the formation ofwhich aims to be a one-stop solution for drone-based inspection and surveillance.
Niharika felt a huge impact of using drones as a technical tool would be in digital transformation of many industries and have a significant and positive impact on the cost of operations, downtime, and security.
“Drone-based inspections/deliveries can not only reduce CO2 emissions but can also potentially save lives by working in confined spaces and hazardous environments, acting as the first emergency responder, or delivering critical essential items such as blood bags and life-saving drugs or vaccines,” she says.
Within a month of starting up in 2020, the pandemic hit and Niharika had to put a stop to everything.
But she thought of a smart solution: why not pivot and help the police forces use drones as a tool for surveillance in containment zones?
The team worked with the Pune Police and the PCMC in collaboration with the Drone Federation of India and kickstarted its business.
Volar Alta offers two business verticals:
Internal asset inspections: Volar Alta envisions that drone-based asset inspections will become routine and result in accurate, actionable data. This will result in reduced repairs and improve asset performance while increasing the lifespan of assets. It provides internal and external inspection services to industries ranging from cement, steel and chemicals to renewable energy, and oil and gas.
Drone-based logistics: The startup aims to become the Uber for drones while enabling every single delivery drone to make at least four deliveries while it is airborne, before returning to base. Thus, while its demand-side app connects businesses to drone operators, its hardware and software bundle for these operators make it more profitable for them to service that demand..
Niharika launched the company in Mumbai and Pune. The startup does not manufacture drones yet, but it does manufacture intelligent custom storage payloads for facilitating multiple deliveries in a single flight.
Volar Alta currently runs on a lean team of five and has 10 pilot projects on contract.
“We offer internal and external inspection services to clients in the manufacturing, chemicals, energy, and real estate sectors. The application ranges from thermography, land survey, construction progress monitoring, security and surveillance, and critical asset visuals,” she says.
It supports internal and external inspection needs of clients include ACC, Ambuja Cement, Adani, and TUV Rheinland.
The beta version of its tech platform for facilitating first-mile, mid-mile, and last-mile deliveries using drones, launched on March 30, has customers like KEMHRC, Uttarakhand State Health Dept, Pune Zilla Parishad, and Biogenics Labs.
Volar Alta’s revenue model works on either a per-asset or a per-day basis, and depends on the industry it conducts inspections for. For logistics, it’s a simple pay-per-trip model.
Increasing efficiency, saving time
Niharika explains the solutions in simple terms.
“A cement company in India wanted to deploy drones to conduct internal inspections of their equipment, including silos and cyclones. To understand the condition of the asset from inside, they would not only have to deploy manpower to find visual defects but also erect scaffolding.
“The high cost and number of days taken for traditional inspections meant that the plant would have to be in shutdown mode, directly impacting production.”
Cement silos are the warehouses where cement and other ash materials are stored for concrete/mortar production.
The cyclone preheater is the core equipment of the new dry process cement production technology. It uses the suspension preheating method to preheat and partially decompose the raw material to shorten the length of the rotary kiln, and at the same time make the raw material and the hot gas flow in the kiln full.
For 64 cyclones, it would take about six days only to erect the scaffolding and another five days for the manual visual inspection. Apart from these 11 days to figure out the problem, a few more days would have been needed for repairs.
With drones, Volar Alta finished the inspection of 64 cyclones in three days; it found problems only with six cyclones. Scaffolding and repair work was done only for these, saving around eight days of shutdown time.
In the inspection space, it competes with Aerodyne [service provider]Garuda, Airpix, etc while in logistics and road-based transport services, other drone manufacturers like Zipline, Marut Drones, and Redwing Labs would potentially be its customers as well.
Volar Alta has received three grants so far – Rs 3.75 lakh from IIM-Bangalore, Rs 8 lakh from Nidhi Prayas Scheme, GoI – FORGE Forward, and Rs 70 lakh from The UK FCDO – British High Commission. It is part of the ‘Women Startups Program’ by IIM-B NSRCEL.
“Since inception, we have seen about 10x growth. The biggest challenge was educating customers and shortening the sales cycle. However, with successful demonstration of the efficacy of drones, our customers have changed their strategy from doing single projects to getting into rate contracts as it not only gives them a better rate, but also gives them a curated and a convenient end-to-end experience,” says Niharika.
Niharika’s plan for Volar Alta is to contribute to the drone-logistics ecosystem and set in place standards and processes to make drone-based deliveries a mainstream reality.