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With doors opening wide, drones club may admit many more members

The new rules governing drone usage have been welcomed by all but there are also a few words of caution and suggestions on what needs to be done to make their implementation smoother.

August 31, 2021 / 12:26 PM IST
A general view of a camera-mounted drone (Image: Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports via Reuters)

A general view of a camera-mounted drone (Image: Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports via Reuters)

The government’s decision last week to liberalise the rules governing drone usage has been welcomed by all though there is a feeling that it can do more to get the nascent industry up and running.

The new rules are built on the premise of trust, self-certification and non-intrusive monitoring.

Simply fly

Several approvals have been abolished, including the need to get a unique authorisation number, unique prototype identification number, certificate of manufacturing and airworthiness, certificate of conformance, certificate of maintenance, import clearance, operator permit, student remote pilot licenses, remote pilot instructor authorisation and drone port authorisation.

Besides, the number of forms that have to be filled to operate drones has been reduced from 25 to 5. The types of fee to be paid to operate drones in the country has also been reduced from 72 to 4.

Further, the fee has been reduced to nominal levels and has been delinked from the size of the drone (drones come in various categories — nano unmanned drones weigh 250 gm or less; micro unmanned drones weigh more than 250 gm but not more than 2 kg; large, unmanned drones weigh more than 150 kg).

The fee for a remote pilot license has been reduced from the earlier Rs 3,000 (for large drones) to Rs 100 for all categories of drones, and is valid for 10 years.

Forward looking’

Industry watchers add that there is line of foreign companies waiting to enter India and they are counting on these rules to establish a level playing field. “We anticipate an influx of $270 million in the Indian drone ecosystem in the next 12 months in the form of foreign direct investments, says Ankit Kumar, Managing Partner, Alternative Global India.

Alternative Global is a management consulting firm with bases in Birmingham, New Delhi and Chicago. The firm focuses on helping businesses and governments in the area of drones and Electric Vehicles.

The drone rules are very forward looking, says Kumar. “Now, we can claim that these are one of the most enabling regulations among all countries. This fits with the idea that many developing countries will start benefiting more and more from drone technology,” he says, adding that the Indian drone industry is expected to grow at an astonishing 20.6 percent CAGR. “We need to focus on what else is required in the short, medium and long term for true exploitation of this new technology,” he adds.

Calling the new rules, a “good start for drone regulations”, Swapnik Jakkampundi, Co-founder, Skye Air Mobility, added that the focus will now be on implementing these rules. Jakkampundi said that the US, Scotland, Australia and Japan are ahead in some aspects of drone operations because of their previous expertise in manufacturing and huge domestic market demand. “The new Indian rules will create domestic demand that will give an impetus to local manufacturers. Besides regulations, the government will have to give the industry a boost through subsidies and various schemes that will enable quality growth for indigenous manufacturing. We are poised to catch up fast once our new laws are released,” he says.

Skye Air Mobility is a drone-delivery tech company that primarily focuses on healthcare, e-commerce and food logistics. As the lead operations member of the first consortium to be given approval by the DGCA, Skye Air Mobility is spearheading BVLOS (beyond visual line of sight) trials for drones and for the Telangana government’s ‘Medicines from the Sky’ project, in collaboration with logistics delivery partners.

Suggestions to make implementation smooth

Though the new drone rules have been welcomed by all there are also a few words of caution and suggestions on what needs to be done to make their implementation smoother.

Satyendra Pandey, Managing Partner, Airavat Transport and Technology Ventures, says that while the drone policy is a leap forward, the “proof is in the delivery and not in debate.”

There is a long list of what needs to be done. For starters, there is the issue of effectively implementing the new rules. “The Interactive Digital Maps and UTM or Unmanned Aircraft System or UAS Traffic Management policy should be released at the earliest to enable faster approvals,” says Kumar.

The UTM draft policy was released a while back and the industry has submitted its views on it. The National UTM Policy will likely be out in 60 days. Once the policy is announced, it will become an interface for drone operators to file flight plans, get permission online for approved routes / green zones / yellow zones and the tracking of drones in real time. This will change the cumbersome process of flight approvals that prevails today and enable ease of doing business using drones.

Others say some aspects of the new drone rules need to be finetuned. For example, the certification process needs to be made smoother with a defined time window for approval from the certification agencies.

“The real commercialisation of drones will happen once BVLOS and night operations are permitted. Rules governing these should be the next focus of the Ministry of Civil Aviation and hopefully, in the next couple of months, many more consortia will be conducting BVLOS trials approved by the DGCA to provide sufficient data to the regulators for evidence-based BVLOS regulations,” Kumar adds.

Once these regulations are in place they will open up long-range delivery operations, inspections and surveys by drones.

Sticking points

However, Pandey maintains that there are basic problems that need to be addressed first. He believes that drone usage is still largely an urban concept and it remains to be seen how rural areas utilise them. Anecdotally, he cites the example of runway lights in rural areas that are often stolen or broken. He adds that as security is a State subject, the local police or residents’ welfare associations could also put hurdles in the smooth operations of drones in rural areas.

Then there is also the issue of unregistered drones and how these will be monitored. This will entail continuously monitoring the capabilities and capacities of the Digital Sky Platform that enables automated registration and flight approvals — among other procedures — for drones. The platform will also have to be updated regularly. It remains to be seen if the focus will shift to this aspect in the near future.

The other point that is worrying industry watchers is the Digital Sky Platform, which they feel should be looked after by a technocrat rather than a bureaucrat or someone from the DGCA. “An earlier Civil Aviation Minister was very focused on digi yatra, the digital platform, to make it easier for air travellers. But since his departure how many people remember or talk about it?” asks an industry player. Hence, there is a fear among industry watchers, that like digi yatra, the Digital Sky Platform will also not get the attention it deserves.

Manufacturing needs a boost

Further, industry watchers are also sceptical about whether India can become the drone capital of the world given that drones are not used much in the country and the new rules do not focus on domestic production.

Currently, most drone manufacturing in India merely involves assembling components sourced from other countries.

“Drone manufacturing should also be made a part of the government’s production linked incentive (PLI) scheme to boost ‘Make in India’ in the real sense,” says Kumar of Alternative Global.

“The new rules have created a competitive environment to let manufacturing and technology players compete to develop drones in India, achieving the larger goal of making India the global drone hub. While R&D is important for developing new technologies, it makes better sense not to reinvent the wheel and instead collaborate with technology players from abroad to localise technology and leapfrog to the next stage of development,” he adds.

The PLI scheme is spread over 10 specific sectors and aims to make Indian manufacturers globally competitive, attract investment in core competency areas and cutting-edge technology, ensure efficiencies, create economies of scale, enhance exports and make India an integral part of the global supply chain.

Ashwini Phadnis Senior journalist based in New Delhi
first published: Aug 31, 2021 12:26 pm