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Flight plan: The lowdown on India's drone policy

The aviation sector regulator has previously blown hot and cold on its policy towards unmanned aircraft, vacillating between being an advocate of drone adoption, to a privacy hawk eager to clip its wings on misgivings regarding security.

April 09, 2021 / 05:17 PM IST
Representational image

Representational image

After two years of dilly dallying over the modalities of a legislative framework for the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), colloquially known as drones, the government seems to have taken a balanced approach to iron out the security and operational issues that has kept the nascent market from taking off in a big way.

On August 27, the Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) announced its policy for remotely-piloted aircraft or drones that will come into force from December 1. The new policy categorizes UAVs and lays down guidelines for aircraft maintenance, how they can be flown and also where they cannot be used.

The aviation sector regulator has previously blown hot and cold on its policy towards unmanned aircraft, vacillating between being an advocate of drone adoption to a privacy hawk eager to clip its wings on misgivings regarding security. A stable policy framework will give all stakeholders an opportunity to work within the contours of the law to leverage the emerging technology for gainful use, especially in the logistics sector.

Civilian drones have gained popularity in many parts of the world, but they have run into turbulence in Indian skies. Operating a drone, even as a hobby, was until recently an offence punishable with jail time. In 2016, three people were arrested in Mumbai’s Charkop region for shooting sequences for a film without obtaining requisite permission. This is not an isolated case. Such incidents have been reported in other parts of the country.

Common clauses of the law used for booking individuals dabbling with drone technology without approvals include Sections 336 (act endangering life or personal safety of others), 287 (negligent conduct with respect to machinery), and 188 (disobedience to orders duly promulgated by public servant).

Close

However, for entities that go by the rule book, the new policy will be a boon, as it allows commercial operation of drones within a specified range and height. Drone-to-home delivery may be a reality very soon, but challenges persist. The policy insists that drones can be operated only within the line of sight of the person operating it. This is aimed at ensuring that remotely operated drones will not become unidentified flying objects.

Licensing

Source: DGCA Source: DGCA

The document classifies remotely-piloted aircraft (RPAs) into five different subsets on the basis of maximum-all-up-weight, which is inclusive of the payload. ‘Nano’ drones are those which weigh less than 250g, while those which come under the ‘large’ category weigh upwards of 150kg. The mass of the payload that can be dispatched via drone depends on the body weight of the aircraft.

Civil aviation requirements (CAR) will be applicable to RPAs, and the method of getting one registered is different depending on its make and country of origin.

For entities looking to import drones operating at de-licensed frequency bands, equipment type approval from the wireless planning and coordination wing (WPC) of the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) is mandatory. Moreover, for those aircraft belonging to the ‘nano’ category, import clearance is to be obtained from the DGCA and the Directorate General of Foreign Trade (DGFT). Upon receipt of import license, the applicant can proceed to getting an operator permit and a unique identification number (UIN) for the drone.

The same procedure is to be followed for registering drones purchased in India. Applications for drones manufactured domestically will be processed on a case-to-case basis through the Digital Sky Platform.

To obtain an identification number for a drone, one has to be a citizen of India. The ownership pattern and management of companies come into play if drones are to be acquired for commercial use by organizations. The government requires that the primary place of business of such entities should be India, and also its chairman and two-thirds of board members must be Indian nationals. Without mentioning a cursory sum, the policy mandates that “substantial ownership and effective control is vested in Indian nationals”. The onus will be on compliance for individuals and groups that already own and operate RPAs in the country.

The flock

According to data compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), an independent global conflict-research institute, India was the biggest importer of UAVs in the world, accounting for 22.5 percent of the world’s imports between 1985 and 2014.

A total of 1,574 UAVs changed hands between countries in the three decades after 1985. The figures are also inclusive of armed variants which find use in military operations. However, these represent a miniscule fraction of the total transfer of major weapons.

Source: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) Source: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)

At 22.5 percent of the overall trade, India has been the biggest recipient of UAVs, followed by the United Kingdom at 20.5 percent, and France, a distant third with 9.8 percent of the market share. India has been a late bloomer in this sector, importing its first drone in 1998 from Israel. But it has made amends in recent years, outdoing peers to acquire a substantial fleet of remotely controlled aircraft. However, the ownership of these vehicles continue to be concentrated in the hands of the government and affiliated research institutes. With falling costs, toy drones have flooded the market, increasing the pressure on authorities to regulate their use.

Israel has been the country of origin for over 60 percent of drone imports into India, while one in four foreign-made UAVs plying on Indian airspace are manufactured in the United States. Armed UAVs are a relatively new phenomenon. The UK imported two MQ-9 Reapers from the United States in 2007. They were employed in the protracted war in Afghanistan. China has emerged as a net exporter of such hardware, having recently sold five drones to the Nigerian government to help it fight Boko Haram militants.

Image credit: Reuters Image credit: Reuters

High altitude surveillance drones also enhance a country's military capabilities. India is no stranger to such hardware. In  May, the government arrived at a consensus with the US over the sale of Predator-B drones to be used by the armed forces.

While states use sophisticated hardware for reconnaissance and surveillance, the motives of corporations and drone enthusiasts are different. For businesses engaged in supply-chain logistics or in the delivery of goods, UAVs will be a boon as it will help them sidestep highly congested roadways in urban spaces, saving both cost and time.

Commercial use

While the government’s drone policy is not opposed to the use of UAVs for commercial use, companies will have to navigate through a bureaucratic maze to get the requisite clearances. In addition to approvals from the ministries for trade, telecommunications and civil aviation, companies will have to get security clearances from the home ministry.

Entities seeking unique identification numbers will have to furnish valid PAN cards and GST identification (GSTIN) numbers. Weight of the payload and the purpose of use will have to be clearly mentioned, as will the exact specifications and make of the aircraft. The progress of regulatory clearances can be tracked on the Digital Sky Platform.

‘Nano’ drones intended for low altitude flights (less than 50 feet) will be exempt from getting a UIN number. However, the law also states that this relaxation is applicable only if the flight is to happen in uncontrolled airspace or enclosed premises for commercial or recreational use only. Uncontrolled airspace is that where the supervision of air traffic control is not necessary for practical reasons.

No-fly zones

A sign at a downtown city park informs people the area is a no drone zone in San Diego, California. Image credit: Reuters A sign at a downtown city park informs people the area is a no drone zone in San Diego, California. Image credit: Reuters

The draft policy has delineated certain geographies over which RPAs cannot be flown. Drones cannot be operated within a distance of 5km from the perimeter wall of airports at Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Kolkata, Bengaluru and Hyderabad. For other civil, private, and defence airports, the buffer area is 3km.

Drones are also not allowed to fly over installations and facilities of strategic interest, the list of which is specified in the Aeronautical Information Publication (AIP). To avoid interfering with the flight plan of passenger airlines, RPAs are not allowed above the Obstacle Limitation Surfaces (OLS) of an operational aerodrome. The Civil Aviation Ministry has defined the permissible height below which foreign objects could pose a threat to aircraft.

RPAs are not allowed in border areas to safeguard national security interests. Moreover, they are not allowed within a 3 km radius of military installations in all parts of the country. Drones are prohibited within 5km of Vijay Chowk in New Delhi, the seat of administrative power and a stone’s throw away from Rajpath, the ceremonial boulevard running through India Gate and Raisina Hill.

Special permits are needed to operate RPAs over ecologically sensitive areas such as wildlife sanctuaries and natural parks. Researchers who use drones from geospatial mapping in biodiversity studies will have to apply for permission to the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change.

Regulatory headwinds

Certain operational bottlenecks have not been resolved in the government’s drone policy. The standard operational altitude for micro, mini, and heavier drones continue to be 200 feet above ground level, as opposed to 400 feet in countries such as the United States, China, and Australia. By setting a virtual ceiling for RPAs, the government could be effectively thwarting their use in commercial applications. Empirical evidence from countries which have a more evolved ecosystem for RPAs show that 200 feet is too little a distance to stay clear of obstacles, especially in densely populated urban centres.

Even for academic purposes like geo-mapping, aerial photography for land surveying, and the monitoring of power lines, the 200-feet limit is inadequate for obtaining optimal results. The overtly cautious approach adopted by the government may be unwarranted. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the body which sets global standard in the aviation sector, has set the limit for RPAs at 400 feet.

The regulatory policy is also silent on the use of autonomous drones. RPAs can also be operated with minimal human intervention if equipped with sophisticated software that allows for obstacles in its field of vision to be mapped and circumvented. These autonomous variants are more powerful and handy in emergency situations such as search-and-rescue operations. They also find applications in agriculture and environment preservation.

Moreover, if a large number of commercial drones were to take to the skies, it would also necessitate the creation of a dedicated air traffic control (ATC) unit for tracking their movement. Some of the tasks would include charting out flight maps, setting up regular routes, notifying all participants of moving obstacles, and ensuring that collisions are avoided.

To help RPAs take off in a big way, the DGCA has identified 23 sites spread over 11 states that can be used for testing drones. However, their location can pose a problem to companies based out of cities like Mumbai and New Delhi. For example, Mumbai-based companies will have to test their RPAs in either of the five designated test sites in Maharashtra – Surendranagar, Shirpur Airport, Amravati, Aurangabad, Ahmednagar, Satara.

Companies based out of Delhi will have to travel up to 270km to Sakkhanpur Farm for trial runs of drone prototypes. A possible alternative to this quandary would be to include open tracts of land on the outskirts of major cities to the list of test sites of RPAs.

The policy document mandates that radio frequency identification (RFID), as well as GSM (global system for mobile) have to be used for tracking drones. This could pose a security risk as third parties could wrest control of their usage.

The requirement that drones be fitted with secondary surveillance radar (SSR) and automatic dependent surveillance–broadcast (ADS–B) transponders could prove to be infeasible on account of their weight. SSR transponders are used in air traffic control systems to establish the identity, altitude and position of aircraft. This requirement could be the undoing of small sized drones for commercial use as the weight cap used for classification will include that of SSR as body weight, exclusive of that of the payload.

Drones have also been involved in notable misadventures. In January 2015, a drone crash landed on the lawn of the White House. Despite being a heavily fortified area, the drone penetrated the security cordon, highlighting how difficult they are to detect.

It is also hard to trace people who are flying drones without seeking requisite authorization. This raises the possibility that they may be subverted for use in illicit activities. A drone which crashed near the US-Mexico border in January 2015 was found to be carrying over six pounds of methamphetamine, a banned drug also known as crystal meth. The US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) says drones are increasingly becoming popular as a carrier of drugs across the border.

Despite multiple government ministries being involved in the formulation of India’s drone policy, other departments will have to come on board to ensure that unmanned aerial vehicles do not exceed their brief and are driven by miscreants whose motives are suspect.
Rohan Abraham

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