The development and manufacturing, or even custom programming, of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) does not pose a huge challenge. These challenges are similar to making an automobile or an industrial robot. As usual, China is considered to be developing assembly line consumer UAVs which are used mostly for hobby and entertainment purposes. The year 2015 is seeing a mainstream proliferation of UAVs. One estimate says that India is the biggest importer of hobby-class UAVs in the world. One trend you can clearly see is that moviemakers and wedding photographers using the platform efficiently. High-profile weddings or gatherings are rarely without a UAV hovering above the guests.
India can manufacture commercial UAVs for sure, from the ability and capability perspective. But the same problem is similar to why India can’t manufacture a costeffective world-class mobile phones. Of course, apps developed in India on mobile phone platforms are innovative and are bringing value to the table by providing local and hyperlocal solutions. Similar will be the case for commercial UAVs in the near future, i.e., building custom applications in civil and commercial domains. UAV hardware is quickly becoming a commodity, and custom applications or solutions are the differentiators.
The big problem in India
While the issues of airspace safety, security and privacy are debated to death, the big problem we are staring at is the lack of regulatory framework in India to develop and deploy UAV-based solutions. However, while the industry has made huge progress in developing inspection-based applications on UAV platforms, there is no regulatory framework in the country. In the absence of which, law enforcement authorities and the Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) have applied a blanket ban on deploying UAVs for commercial purposes. A public notification issued to this effect in October 2014 stated that “due to lack of regulation, operating procedures/standards and uncertainty of the technology, UAS poses threat for air collisions and accidents. Civil operation of UAS will require approval from the Air Navigation Service provider, defence, Ministry of Home Affairs, and other concerned security agencies, besides the DGCA”.
However, the DGCA is said to be working on drafting a policy which may clear the air on use of UAVs for civil purposes. Like in other areas of geospatial policies, industry chambers like the Confederation of Indian Industry, Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) and the National Association of Software and Services Companies (Nasscom) can play a big role in seeking active participation in policy drafting activity. They should also be Wanted A UAV Regulatory Framework in India UAV 47 Geospatial World • October • 2015 contributing with ideas, resources, insights, research and professional help to DGCA which is tasked to roll out a policy framework.
India needs a regulatory framework and a regulator for UAVs on the lines of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) or the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI). Drafting the policy is very tricky and is not an easy task because multidimensional issues on safety, security and privacy have to be adequately dealt with. Drafting teams needs to be knowledgeable on the emerging technologies and trends, and make provisions for them adequately.
Airspace segregation and safety to aircraft and citizenry: This is the foremost thing the framework should establish with clarity and purpose. The industry acknowledges that clarity on this point alone will give a tremendous boost to UAV based application industry. Again, this is a tricky subject with technical challenges — how do you identify, control, monitor, track, license and enforce rules? Sheer variety and volume of UAVs which will occupy the airspace in future will be mind-boggling, managing these effectively is a challenge for sure?
Standardization and infrastructure: There are no existing standards for civil and commercial UAVs, which is resulting in substandard products without any reliability. Standards are to be defined, applied and enforced without which an UAV should not be available for purchase or take flight. For example, all commercial UAVs ideally should have a program burnt on the chip which will have anti-collision algorithm and does not fly beyond certain height or in highly restricted areas. An infrastructure ecosystem should be established with standards too. Solar or battery charging docks spread across the country can be one example. One of the key technical challenges for UAVs is its endurance.
Privacy: It is a subject with attracts extreme views. This needs to be dealt with caution and deftness. Generalization of the terms effecting privacy in the legal framework, for instance, the terms such as ‘grossly offensive’, ‘has menacing character’, ‘causes annoyance or inconvenience’, ‘grossly harmful’ and ‘disparaging’ will only allow room to litigants and executive agencies to play mischief.
Conclusion The reputation that the term drone or UAV has with its defence baggage is the biggest impediment. However, this is rapidly changing with concerted effort by industry biggies and the reporting by electronic and print media, which is regularly featuring useful applications of the UAVs. Positive awareness is gaining for sure. Business, policymakers and society in general are now seeing the multitude of benefits that UAVs can bring to the table.
It is not a question whether or not UAVs will become part of our society. It is by when and how soon. Technical challenges of UAV deployment on various form factors are being surmounted every passing day. Having a clear regulatory environment can do wonders in development and deployment of this new emerging technologies for obvious benefits.