India’s decision to allow drones for COVID-19 relief operations will pave the way for use in commercial applications, says GlobalData a leading data and analytics company. Presently in the country drones have now become one of the most trusted tools to monitor COVID-19 situations. From sanitizing cities to monitoring crowd and lockdown violators and providing medical aid to hard reach areas, drones are being used in every part of the country to fight with the novel coronavirus. A recent effort by the Ministry of Civil Aviation proves that the Government of India has finally realized the importance of technology and how it can increase the pace of relief of work. In a new initiative, the Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) and Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) have launched the GARUD portal earlier this month that provides conditional exemptions to agencies involved in drone operations and opened up avenues to use drones for non-defense related application in the country.
GARUDA that stands for Government Authorisation for Relief Using Drones is meant to fast track the exemption requests that were coming from government entities for Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS) operations.
Nidhi Gupta, Technology Analyst at GlobalData says, “With conventional strategies failing to control the spread of COVID-19 in the country, frontline government authorities are tapping the power of drones for applications such as monitoring crowd gathering and movement through surveillance, enforcing social distancing norms, spraying disinfectants, and delivering medicines.”
The step has been taken to aid government entities in addressing the challenges posed by COVID-19 and it will remain in force until further orders. The conditional exemption shall be limited to RPAS deployed by a government entity for aerial surveillance, aerial photography and public announcements related to COVID-19.
With this new initiative, the MoCA has granted exemptions earlier this month to 13 consortia, including those initiated by budget airline SpiceJet, Google-backed Dunzo and drone maker Throttle Aerospace to operate drones on an experimental basis without requiring operator permits and unique identification numbers till 30 September 2020.The move enables them to pilot drone operations beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) for transporting goods, once approved. Earlier in April 2020, the DGCA had also approved operations by no-permission-no-take-off compliant drones in several green (low risk to COVID-19) zones across the country.
Will GARUD change eco-system of Drones?
Gupta says, “Encouraged by the government’s new found focus on easing norms for flying drones, more businesses are now seeking to develop drone-based capabilities such as B2B and B2C deliveries, medical supplies, and movement of packages for air-cargo, which indicates the tremendous potential in store for commercial drone applications in the country going forward.”
The question that remains unanswered is, will GARUD change the eco-system of the drone industry in India even after COVID-19. The country that has been working on a drone policy since 2018 and came with policy 1.0 and 2.0 and also launched Digital Sky has not yet allowed the drones to fully take charge. While these drone policy established an intricate system of application and approval procedures, but also ignored various implications.
The GARUD portal that has been launched to provide relief during this pandemic situation still imposes certain restrictions, which means the potential of the technology cannot yet be fully harnessed.
In opinion of Brijesh Pandey, CEO and Founder of GarudaUAV , “The GARUD portal is a welcome policy intervention by the DGCA. It puts all COVID-19 related drone permissions on the fast-track but this has not added much value to regular drone services providers. This is merely the tip of the iceberg. By and large, the Indian drone industry suffers from a plethora of bureaucratic strangleholds. Getting approvals for regular drone flights is still challenging”.
While currently, India allows drone operations only within visual line of sight of an operator, thus restricting their use mainly to surveillance. Flying drones Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) that can allow autonomous and long-range drones’ operation that is essential for drone-based deliveries is still in operational stage.
If the drone industry is to see sustainable growth and continued investor interest, then the government has to expedite all the requisite policy interventions like Digital Sky. Let’s not forget that any industry is only as good or as bad as its prevalent government policy, adds Pandey.
Saksham Bhutani, CEO and founder of Indshine says, “GARUD is an interim platform for COVID-19 based permission approvals. However no one followed this and people have flown drone irrespective of permission. Although the purpose of launching interim platform was genuine to speed up the permission process, but sad, no one followed. This is not going to be there after COVID and there will only be Digital Sky platform like before for all sort of things. Just, in interim, to allow smooth use of UAVs some relaxation has been made for fast process the applications”.