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India seeks to open new skies with draft drone policy

India Drone Policy
Photo courtesy – The Indian Express

The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) move to put out the draft policy for the use of commercial drones in India last week has finally set in motion the process to clear the way for their use in India.

Drones, variously known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), unmanned aerial systems (UAS) or remotely piloted aircraft system (RPAS), are used in several parts of the world for surveying and aerial mapping, disaster management work, monitoring crop production and infrastructure activities, besides commercial photography and courier delivery.

Owing to safety concerns, flying drones – even hobby ones — without permission has far so been illegal in India and one could land in jail if caught. Interestingly, toy UAVs are openly and widely available in the market and e-commerce sites like Amazon. However, in the absence of a laid down law, it was serious application areas which were suffering. Now all that looks to be over soon with the new draft policy released for public consultation, before it is finalized after two months.

“Not having a regulation was amounting to total ban of any activity and that doesn’t make sense. A lot of people were enquiring about it and wondered why we delayed it,” Pusapati Ashok Gajapathi Raju, Minister of Civil Aviation, said while releasing the draft last week.

Absence of clear-cut regulations made innovation and attracting investments very difficult in this field, and the new rules come as a relief for the industry as it is expected to usher in an ease in manufacturing and using drones in the country.

In a lot of ways, the draft looks similar to the circular brought out by DGCA in April last year, but a closer look reveals that the new one is far better and borrows a lot from progressive drone laws in developed countries, and that actually a lot of serious thoughts have gone behind its framing.

Naturally, the policy has been so far hailed as one of the most balanced and futuristic regulatory policies in India.

“This second draft looks far more encouraging than the earlier one,” said Shinil Shekhar of Airpix, an Indian drone manufacturer.

Lauding the government for its “pro-development and pro-efficiency approach while structuring the policy,” Vignesh Santhanam of Quidich Aerial Solutions, said, “the overall outline of the policy has been futuristic and startup friendly.” As a result, we hope to see a surge of drone service adopters, hobbyists, pilots and users across the country.”

The draft has been largely hailed by global players too. DJI, the world leader in civilian drones and aerial imaging technology, welcomed the regulations, calling it “positive and reflecting a strong willingness to embrace this technology in the daily activities by opening the skies”.

The fineprint

The draft categorizes drones have been divided into five different classes based on their weight – Nano (Less than or equal to 250 grams); Micro (Greater than 250 grams and less than or equal to 2 kg); Mini (Greater than 2 kg and less than or equal to 25 kg); Small (Greater than 25 kg and less than or equal to 150 kg); and Large (Greater than 150 kg).

Welcoming the classification into five categories, Aadesh Bumb of DJI said the draft gives provisions for the drone industry to thrive by allowing drones to be used in agriculture, mapping, logistics and delivery, hobbyists, wedding market etc.

However, Nikhil Kumar, Director – Technical Marketing (SAARC Region) Trimble Navigation India, a global player in professional drones, felt that the weight classification for a Micro RPA should be changed to up to 3 kg instead of current 2 kg, including sensor/payload to allow for professional grade UAS for surveying, construction and mining applications. “This would ensure streamlining of operational procedures for professional users who can leverage the full extent of the technology, use appropriate high-resolution cameras for priority infrastructure and other projects. It would also ensure that users don’t have to compromise on the technology and they use the right solutions for the national developmental activity,” he added.

India drone policy - Categorisation on Drones
Categorisation on Drones – How they stack up

The draft mandates that each drone needs to be registered before use. Accordingly, all UAVs — except for those in Nano category with an intent to fly up to 50 feet and those owned and operated by Government security agencies — require a unique identification number (UIN).

The draft also lists out a detailed operational procedure that drone owners will have to complete each time a drone takes off.

“Drones weighing 2 kg or less would have light touch regulation,” Civil Aviation Secretary Rajiv Nayan Choubey said, explaining that to eliminate delays, the government is working on Web-based digital template for the operator. Once the systems are in place, it is envisioned that the UIN registration for a Micro drone will take maximum two days.

For each flight, a drone owner needs to take separate permissions (unmanned aircraft operator permit (UAOP). There are certain exemptions — Nano UAV operating below 50 feet in uncontrolled airspace and indoor operations; Micro drones operating below 200 feet above ground level (AGL) in uncontrolled airspace and clear of prohibited; restricted and danger areas or Temporary Segregated Areas (TSA) and Temporary Reserved Areas (TRA) as notified by AAI.

However, the user is required to intimate the local police authorities before conduct of actual operations. As in the case with UIN, drones owned and operated by government security agencies are also exempted from obtaining UAOP, but the agency is expected to intimate local police authorities and concerned ATS Units before conduct of actual operations.

“That Nano drones do not need to register if flying below 50 feet is a positive. So is the suggestion that Micro drones need to register and acquire UIN if flying below 200 feet,” said Bumb.

Shekhar felt that issue of UIN within two days and allowing operation under 200 feet using micro UAV just by informing the local police station are the highlights of the draft.

India drone policy: The no-go areas
The no-go areas

However, given that the international ‘standard limit’ for UAV operations is 400 feet AGL or below hence, Kumar thinks it would help to change all rules including the “200 feet” should be changed to “400 feet”. “This would also be in alignment with the international (including ICAO) standards of UAV operations below 400 feet. In addition, many countries in Asia Pacific and the Middle East have implemented 400ft AGL rule as well,” he pointed out.

The draft also specifies certain areas that will be out of bound for drones. For instance, they will not be permitted to fly within the 5-km radius of an operational airport or within 50 km of an international border. The 5-km radius around New Delhi’s Vijay Chowk — where Parliament, President’s House and North and South Blocks are located — is also off limits. Flying over densely populated areas, over an area affecting public safety or where emergency operations are underway, or over eco-sensitive areas like national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, are also not allowed.

Choubey also revealed that there would be punishment for violating the regulations and such drones would be neutralized. “We are working the neutralization procedure. Stringent action will also be taken against the drone company, the owner and the ground base-station operator,” he said, while refusing to give further details since the matter was classified.

In the future if the drone space gets too crowded, there are also plans to deploy an air traffic control (ATC) for drones which should help ease out drone congestion in the skies.

The concerns

The short time limit – till December 1 — to give suggestions on the draft has come up as one of the primary concerns, others being weight classification and Use of RFID and GSM SIM Card slot for APP based tracking.

“Not sure how the SIM card facility is going to work; we would like to get more clarity on that and how foolproof it is going to be,” voiced Shekhar.

Kumar is against the requirement of SIM card slot for an app-based tracking for RPAs in micro and mini category as most of the drones in this category do not provide for a SIM-based operation and furthermore this actually increases the risk as a third party taking control of the drones, thus doing nothing about improving safety and security of the UAS. “Further, professional UAS solutions are ideal for use for various engineering, mining irrigation, watershed and road construction projects. Many of these areas of potential operations do not possess stable / reliable GSM connectivity and hence in the absence of the same would make it impossible to operate the UAS if GSM connectivity is mandatory. Also, a majority of products in this category uses license free 2.4GHz radio connectivity between the UAS and the control unit,” he added.

Further, SSR and ADS-B transponder are too expensive and too heavy for ‘Micro’ and ‘Mini’ class, and thus it would be impractical to have a SSR or ADS-B transponder equipment due to weight, and if they would then the cost will be go very high.

DJI, which has introduced its own system called the ‘Aeroscope’ that can detect all DJI drones (soon other manufacture drones will be included) in the vicinity of 5-km radius, is keen to work with government organizations in India to safeguard its airports and other high security institutions.

There are also reservations regarding the weight classification, which Bumb feels could be better defined. “A 2.1 kg drone is more likely and closely related to the Micro category rather than the Mini category. The differentiation in weight classes could have been from 2-10 kg rather than 25 kg.”

He added that the 200-feet flying limit could be restricting for the model aircraft industry growth. “This is a serious concern that needs to be addressed as the technology will only grow if people start showing interest in building and flying model aircraft early on.”

Some sections also feel that the restrictions and no-go’s should be very clearly defined in the policy. “For instance, in areas like aerial mapping or 3D mapping flying drones can breach a person’s privacy. It is very important to give details of the exact purpose of using drones,” said a security expert on the condition of anonymity.

While the draft makes it clear that the remote pilot for any drone must be at least 18 years old and have gone through a prescribed training process (“Remote pilot shall have attained 18 years of age with thorough ground training equivalent to that undertaken by aircrew of manned aircraft or a PPL holder (Aeroplanes/Helicopter) with FRTOL”), Kumar thinks this does not seem very pragmatic for micro and min categories of RPA.

However, the provision for minimum training of ground pilot is essential to avoid mishaps like a drone crashing on a person’s head or smashing the windscreens of a car or windows of house, which brings in the issue of compulsory insurance. This also means linking with the insurance industry and developing mechanisms because at the end of the day UAVs are a kind of vehicle.

Bumb hoped that the final policy doesn’t restrict flying of drones to only Indian citizens, and is inclusive towards foreigners too. In fact, as Kumar pointed out the draft guidelines are not clear or preclude foreign trainers from the OEM from providing the requisite training to the buyers. “A provision should be made for the foreign trainers to impart training as well with possible time bound clearance if so required.” He also felt a further simplified guidelines should be created for temporary/long term import of the UAV/UAS for demonstration purposes.

“I think the UAV regulations will be complete only when there is proper control at the import and sale of the UAVs too. Only genuine suppliers should be allowed to sell, there should be compliances for them too and the government should be aware of every UAV in the market (including micro),” said Shekhar.

The road ahead

While it has picked up as a hobby in India, the enterprise drone space in India has also gained the attention of venture capitalists. In addition to defense forces, mining industry, government departments like land and railways, and local law and order authorities have been partnering or developing drones with Indian startups for various activities like monitoring assets, keeping a check on unmanned areas, illegal deforestation activities, maintaining law and order etc.

The new draft policy certainly come as a relief for e-commerce companies such as Flipkart and Amazon who have been lobbying for some time now to allow drone deliveries.

The industry hopes that formalized regulations will now give a great fillip to usage in India. “We now have a clearer view of where things stand in terms of policy. Given how drones are hugely beneficial across a host of domains such as mining, railways, smart cities, roads, agriculture and telecom, we hope there will be a low resistance to drone technology in rural and urban India,” said Santhanam.

DJI, which sees immense growth and potential in the Indian market in the near future, seeks to work closely with all the state governments and help them integrate drone technology in all their government departments giving a holistic end-to-end solution.

As Choubey said after the release of the policy draft, “there is an immense possibility in the realm of drones and the only boundary and constraint is human imagination.”