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RPAS policy of the DGCA, a critique

As they say, better late than never. The much awaited ‘drone’ policy will come into effect from December 1, 2018. Drones or Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems, RPAS, are already in India for several years and their use ranges from children’s toys to wedding aerial videography to remote sensing for infrastructure and other development programmes. The Policy seeks to bring some order and stability in a market that is uncontrollably chaotic. However, the attempt itself creates so many classes and sub-classes of RPAS, users and clearing agencies that it becomes very confusing.

To begin with it classifies RPAS into five classes by weight as follows:

i) Nano : Less than or equal to 250 grams.

ii) Micro : Greater than 250 grams and less than or equal to 2 kg.

iii) Small : Greater than 2 kg and less than or equal to 25 kg.

iv) Medium : Greater than 25 kg and less than or equal to 150 kg.

v) Large : Greater than 150 kg.

For each class there are further rules and exceptions and a plethora of Government Agencies are involved in the clearances. For example, both locally manufactured and imported RPAS of all the above types require Equipment Type Approval (ETA) from WPC Wing, Department of Telecommunication for operating in de-licensed frequency band(s). Such approval shall be valid for a particular make and model. Nano type is exempt from applying to DGCA for import clearance. For the others, based upon the import clearance issued by DGCA, Directorate General of Foreign Trade, DGFT shall issue license for import of RPAS.

After receiving an import licence, the user has to apply to DGCA for Unique Identification Number, UIN and /or Unmanned Aircraft Operators Permit, UAOP as applicable. All applicants are classified in four categories of persons and companies who have to apply for the UIN along with nine specific documents. One of the documents is an MHA clearance. Indian citizens need not apply for MHA Clearance provided they submit self-attested copies of at least two out of three valid identity proofs viz. Passport, Driving License or Aadhar Card. Foreign RPAS operators are to be cleared as per Foreign Aircrew Temporary Authorization, FATA procedures.

Exceptions from UIN are RPAs owned/operated by NTRO, ARC and Central Intelligence Agencies and RPAs in Nano category intended to fly upto 50 feet (15 m) above ground level in uncontrolled airspace/enclosed premises for commercial/recreational/R&D purposes.

For all other applicants and RPAS categories the application is to be done through the Digital Sky Platform and UIN will be issued in two working days.

Similarly for UAOP the exceptions cover Nano RPA operating below 50 feet (15 m) AGL in uncontrolled airspace /enclosed premises, Micro RPA operating below 200 feet (60 m) AGL in uncontrolled airspace /enclosed premises and RPA owned and operated by NTRO, ARC and Central Intelligence Agencies. In the case of the NTRO, ARC and Central Intelligence Agencies operators it will be necessary for them to inform the local police office and the Air Traffic Control. In the case of the operation of the Micro RPA it will be necessary to inform local police office 24 hours prior to conduct of actual operations. In all other cases the operators have to submit application through Digital Sky Platform along with requisite fees for issue of UAOP to DGCA at least 7 working days prior to actual commencement of operations along with five documents. The UOAP will be issued in seven working days by DGCA with copies to MHA, BCAS, IAF, ATS Provider (AAI and MoD), and district administration (Superintendent of Police) for information. The UOAP will be valid for five years, not transferable and renewal will require fresh clearance by MHA.

The order has detailed instructions for safety and security, training of RPAS pilots and maintenance requirements of RPAS.

On mandatory equipment

Section 11 is on mandatory equipment on all RPAS except the Nano which are operated up to 50 ft (15 m) AGL in uncontrolled airspace/ enclosed premises.

The mandatory equipment are:

  1. a) GNSS for horizontal and vertical position fixing
  2. b) Autonomous Flight Termination System or Return Home (RH) option
  3. c) Flashing anti-collision strobe lights
  4. d) RFID and GSM SIM Card/ NPNT compliant for APP based real time tracking
  5. e) Fire resistant identification plate inscribed with UIN
  6. f) Flight controller with flight data logging capability

All RPA, excluding Nano and Micro category operating in uncontrolled airspace, intending to operate in controlled airspace up to 400 feet (120 m) AGL shall be equipped with the following additional equipment/capabilities:

  1. a) SSR transponder (Mode ‘C’ or ‘S’) or ADS-B OUT equipment
  2. a) Barometric equipment with capability for remote sub-scale setting
  3. b) Geo-fencing capability
  4. c) Detect and Avoid capability

The RPA pilot has to be in constant communications with the ATS and the IAF in coordination with AAI will continuously monitor all RPAS activity. There are detailed operating instructions. All outdoor flights will be in the daytime only, in line of sight and in suitable weather conditions as determined from IMD reports. Flight permission has to sought and obtained over the Digital Sky Platform. Flight plans have to be submitted at least 24 hours before the flight and must be undertaken after ATC and MET briefing and clearance from the nearest ATC unit. Other clearances required are Air Defence Clearance (ADC) from the nearest IAF Unit and FIC Number from the Flight Information Centre (FIC) concerned. No RPAS can drop or discharge any substance. That means Amazon delivery by drone is out as is attacks like the one on the Venezuelan President.

Nano and Micro category RPA operators intending to operate beyond 50 ft (15 m) AGL and 200 ft (60 m) AGL respectively in uncontrolled airspace/ enclosed premises will have to proceed as per the instructions of the other RPAS types. How these small RPAS will be able to carry all the mandatory equipment within their All-up weight limit is not clear.

Sections 13.1 and 13.2 really sets the cat among the pigeons. Section 13 defines the no go areas and includes in 13.1l) “eco-sensitive zones around National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries as notified by Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change without prior permission”. This is really inexplicable because these are the areas which really need high resolution data for monitoring and management.

Then comes 13.2 which stipulates that “No RPA shall carry out aerial photography/remote sensing survey over the areas specified in Para 13.1 of this CAR. However, DGCA may authorize such operations on case-to-case basis subject to approval of MoD. In such a case, application shall be submitted to Director Regulations & Information, DGCA (seven copies) in the prescribed format as indicated at Annexure-XI”.

The ‘seven copies’ rings a bell and identical formulation can be found in the “Instructions for Conduct and Clearance of Aerial Photographic Survey/Aircraft borne Remote Sensing data and imageries, acquisition, classifications, storage and issue” dated May 1, 2006. (Please also see https://www.geospatialworld.net/blogs/indian-aerial-photography-policy/). Even the Annexure-XI is a direct lift from this policy inasmuch that it talks mainly of film and development and defers to digital data by adding ‘/Data’ everywhere that ‘Aerial Photograph’ is mentioned.

The confusion is that ‘aerial photography/remote sensing survey’ is mentioned only in this section in terms of specific restrictions. Does it imply therefore that such survey can be freely done in all other areas?

An interesting aspect is that test sites are being set up all over India to help Indian Organizations and Institutions involved in R&D related activity of RPAS for testing/ demonstration purpose. Alternatively they may utilize unused airstrips or Government educational institutions campus, provided adequate safety precautions are in place.This is a good move to encourage homegrown entrepreneurs.

What is the Digital Sky Platform? A search on the web reveals that the DSP is the brainchild of India’s minister of state for civil aviation Jayant Sinha who referred to a future with drones dotting the sky all controlled by unmanned, automated air traffic control. “Increasingly the way in which people are thinking about the use of unmanned aerial vehicles is that you create a digital space where every point in that 3-D digital space is mapped out,” he had said. The Digital Sky Program is designed to automate the entire chain of permissions required to own and operate a drone or drone service in India starting from registration of the UAV to planning and flying them — obviating the need for a large volume of paperwork. The order however, does not give any details of this platform, not even a URL. Hopefully this is work in progress and will be revealed before December 1, 2018 when the Policy comes into play.

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