When Amit Sukhija, Founder and CEO, ZestIOT started his career straight out of NIT in corporate, he still had a desire of building products and solutions of his own. It was only during 2013-14 when IoT burst on to the scene with ferocity did Sukhija finally put himself on a path to realize it. And was born—ZestIOT.
The first opportunity came from Air India to “track aircraft and its operations when it lands as you don’t get the visibility and as a result the ability to recover delays is minimum,” he explains. Within a couple of meetings, he was in front of the airlines’ CMD who liked the concept and product so much that it was live at the Delhi airport in eight weeks.
Truly a dream come true moment he says as it morphed from a mere concept to a prototype to finally going live at the Delhi airport, even as Air India helped shape the product for the next couple of months. But it was far from being the last destination for ZestIOT. More like a transit.
The journey to efficiency:
Post the success with the Delhi airport, Sukhija started interacting with Indigo airlines and GMR airport. With a round of angel funding, he got a pilot project from GMR airport. “We moved from Gurgaon to Hyderabad and built the product,” he says.
Coincidentally, Boeing too came to India with an innovation challenge, which ZestIOT not only won but were also the top three companies across India. Boeing also invested in the solution and became a strategic partner. “We got new wings. We deployed the solution at Hyderabad, Delhi and Bengaluru airport and also tested with multiple customers,” he adds.
“Over the period of five years, we’ve built a platform which is now integrating the journeys of the aircraft and can accurately predict the landing,” he adds. From the moment the aircraft lands ZestIOT uses Internet of Things, an AI-based technology and a camera to detect operations. Sukhija claims to have digitized the entire operations of the aircraft and provided visibility to the airport, airline and ground handlers, fuellers, caterers and brought them all on one common platform.
“This has helped them plan resources in the terms of manpower and equipment to make sure delays can be avoided, tasks can be executed on schedule and the system captures operations and predicts when the aircraft will be ready for departure,” he says. “As a result, we got together with Cisco and Bangalore airport, and were able to showcase two additional flights per parking stand efficiency.”
The sensing tech is able to track the aircraft when it is 200 nautical miles away from an airport. As a result, it is then possible to build contextual awareness in and around the airport in terms of the aircraft and the traffic movement. It then helps the system make predictions basis the congestion, airport environment, and generate and capture data and insights.
The IoT device is on every physical, movable asset at the airport—be it catering, the fuel truck and the cameras are in front on the aircraft parking stand which captures a lot of operations using the AI. The combination of all the three systems generates a lot of data and creates one common platform with data security rights to different users based on who owns the asset and the data of the asset.
The system is also tuned to work for every airport differently basis business rules based on the type of aircraft, parking stand, flights, and the time taken for every task. “On one hand the system maintains what is to be done and when. On the other hand, it captures what is happening right now—with real time visibility and basis the algorithm which keeps on checking in the background what is happening and when it is going to finish. We generate past data of performance and based on these two are able to derive predictions using machine learning algorithm,” he says.
Need for customized hardware:
A lot of compute—be it edge or hardware compute—goes in. The team at ZestIOT had to build a custom IoT hardware. The conventional IoT 4G devices in the market are at the risk of not capturing data due to delays. “The customized hardware not only captures all of these data but is also designed with power management and dual 4G-based communication with backup to 3G and 2G as airports have issue with communications too,” he says.
“Along with Cisco also added a module so the data is collected there, does computing there, identifies operations and send only intelligent data. So, we were able to do these kinds of customizations which was one more factor of success for us,” he says. At the Brussels airport too ZestIOT masked every passenger identity even before the camera is recording the operation for training. “We applied edge computing methodology masking every passenger, protecting their identity, being compliant to GDPR and only then the feed goes to the data center for further training and to the algorithm for ML application,” he explains.
The platform has high performance computing. Therefore, any event that happens is made visible to different users, who are decision makers, in less than 15s.
The runway ain’t that smooth:
Sukhija had to fend of the mindset that the startups could not disrupt the industry ZestIOT works in. Also, with corporate giants present the comparison is against them, making it a David and the Goliath type of situation.
“The industry is demanding. It isn’t easy to crack. Customers keep doing a lot of trials because they have to move the operations to these kinds of technologies and can’t afford to bring everything to standstill,” he says. “The airports behave in a monopoly to an extent and they want to control the space and the products which they generate. Also, being an Indian company, taking this product to the US and establishing the brand is a different challenge. It wasn’t easy. But today, we are known in India and international markets to be a promising startup.”
When quizzed about the deep tech ecosystem and its state he says, “It is a hard journey taking deep tech as an anchor to start the company in India. The customers don’t pay for deep tech but for value. It is also not easy to do it in India. If it is deep tech, try to look for an international market where the investor money to pump into the product will be high and will be the market appetite.”