Sunday, June 20, 2021

India’s Drone Regulations: An ostrich-like policy

by Sanat Kaul

While drones or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV/UAS/RPAS) started as a military tool a few decades back and had yet to break into the mainstream, these are now a multi-billion dollar business. 

With hundreds of applications in both humanitarian as well as in economy, it has a very useful purpose to perform. Besides recreational and social photography, drones have a major input in Agriculture, Mining, Wildlife, Construction, Medical Supplies, Spraying, Power Line Inspection, surveying both overground and underground, etc. With different cameras like thermal or infrared, these cameras perform very important tasks to the economy. Yet misuse of a Drone can be dangerous.

The Government of India has adopted an Ostrich-like policy towards drones. Instead of encouraging this new technology, it chose to ban it as late as 2014 by a directive of the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA). The result was that the nascent industry collapsed in India while in the rest of the world it grew by leaps and bound. China today is the biggest producer of civil drones.

Finally, the DGCA released about a 50-page Unmanned Aircraft System Rules, 2020 under the Aircraft Act, two years after the draft Regulations were put out in 2018. While there is no vision document on drones, in public conferences it has been stated that they want to make India the biggest manufacturing hub for drones. 

However, far from it, the new regulations are cumbersome and forbidding. Drones have been categorised into five: nano (<250 grams); micro (250 grams to 2kg); small (2 to 25 kg); medium (25 kg to 150 kg) and large (more than 150 kg). However, there are far too many. Only three categories should suffice. Again essential requirements except for nano is GPS; Return to Home; Anti Collision; ID plate; Flight & Data logging capacity; No Permission- No Takeoff (NPNT) with RF ID/Sim; Certificate of Manufacture and Air Worthiness and finally, all drones to have Geo-Fencing Capability.

The regulation is based on Digital Sky Platform, a well-conceived but badly implemented scheme based on the presumption that we will have millions of drones flying in India from day one. 

This Digital Sky Platform which envisages a perfect Unmanned Traffic Management based on NPNT concept, untested anywhere in the world, makes our policy futuristic and the most perfect. However, it remains a non-starter, as the Digital Sky Platform has not been successful so far.  Meanwhile, we have missed the bus once again in domestic manufacturing as there is no substantial demand due to rigid rules and non-performance of the Digital Sky Platform.

On manufacturing domestically, the rules have made sufficient obstacles to curb the spirit of entrepreneurship. The foreign collaboration will need to follow the principle of ‘Substantial Ownership and Effective Control’ by Indian citizens as is done for Airlines, R&D restricted only on DGCA approved Organisation (without a published list so far). Why this restriction? Anyone’s guess. Testing will be only in DGCA approved laboratories (not published list so far). A setback for startups.

While domestic production of drones in quantities appears far cry, import of drones has been hampered by over restrictions and multi-step procedures. An importer is required to get a Certificate of Manufacture and Airworthiness and apply to DGCA and then to DGFT for an import license. The fate of importing components is yet another worry and may require, perhaps, the same procedure. For maintenance of drones, authorised maintenance centres duly approved by DGCA are required. These authorised maintenance centres should issue a certificate of maintenance and will be held accountable. Such maintenance centres do not have any requirements under SOEC and could be 100% foreign-owned.

Licensed Remote Pilot  (LRP) needs a license for all categories, except Nano, for which they have to approach any of about 30 licensed training schools which are the existing Flying Training Schools who have no experience for Drone training but have been put on the DGCA list for convenience. They have started subcontracting the training under their supervision. DGCA gets the assurance that they will not be flying by night operators. 

Then there are the Drone Operators who also need a permit from DGCA called UAS Operators Permit (UAOP). Here there are two categories- UAOP-1 for Visual Line of Sight Operations (for micro and small) and UAOP-11 for Beyond Visual Line of Sight Operations (for medium and large). UAOP holders are responsible for Drone operations all the time including privacy issues and are expected to comply with local restrictions and will carry third-party insurance (except Nano). There is, besides the operator, the concept of Drone Ports.

The flying restrictions will be imposed by the NPNT concept of Digital Platform, Digital Sky, and Geo-Fencing. However, there are massive delays and difficulties in getting Digital Sky mapping off the ground into the Digital Platform. At the same time, the rules have enhanced the punishments for violations. The quantum of punishment for authorized flying and manufacturing drones range from Rs 25,000 to Rs 5 lakhs and imprisonment up to 2years.

The new regulations have been described as “deathblow” by some to an already struggling industry. The truth perhaps is not too far away. The Government, though obsessed with security threats, has hardly done anything to stop rogue drones by not equipping itself with anti-drone technology, but has made life difficult for genuine drone users, manufacturers, and importers. Time is of the essence in using drones for economic and social development. India is also a member of the Joint Authorities for Rulemaking on Unmanned Systems (JARUS) – a collection of 63 Government agencies along with EASA and Eurocontrol for making model laws for drones but does not attend their meetings. 

Finally, India seems to have made a self-goal once again by overriding restrictions and killing entrepreneurship and at the same time missed huge economic and social advantages of this technology. Unless a friendly and graded Regulation is brought in place, the future of this industry does not appear bright for India.

About the author: Dr. Sanat Kaul is the Chairman of International Foundation for Aviation, Aerospace and Drones.

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