Drones in India: There are several regulatory hurdles to overcome

By Asheeta Regidi

The prospect of having deliveries made by drones has everyone excited. The first ever commercial home delivery was made a few days ago by 7-Eleven in the United States. Amazon promises future deliveries within 30 minutes at your doorstep through Amazon Prime Air. What’s preventing the full-fledged use of this technological innovation is regulating it. India’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) initially banned the civil use of drones in October, 2014, promising regulations within a few months. The first draft of these regulations were finally issued a year and a half later in April this year. Now, the latest regulatory hurdle is in fixing a regulatory authority for the drones. The Economic Times reports that the DGCA is unwilling to regulate the drones due to lack of adequate resources, and stated that regulation was possible only with the involvement of the state governments and police.

The Draft Guidelines are not designed for commercial deliveries

The concerns of the DGCA are certainly understandable. The implications, particularly safety and privacy concerns with permitting the large scale civil use of drones are immense. Around the world, drone regulations are in the process of being framed. Drone deliveries on an experimental basis are also being conducted. The DGCA’s first attempt to regulate drones has come in the form of the draft Guidelines for Obtaining Unique Identification Number and Operation of Civil Unmanned Aircraft System (the Draft Guidelines). Given the uncertain nature of the use of and security of drones, these guidelines are extremely stringent, and are clearly not designed to cover commercial large-scale deliveries like those proposed by Amazon and similar entities.

Every single drone flying above 200 feet to be registered

Consider Amazon’s model drone, which weighs less than 25 kilos, and flies within the height range of 200 to 400 feet. Under the Draft Guidelines, every single delivery drone used by Amazon will need a separate permit.

As per the Draft Guidelines, every drone being used for any civil purpose, such as the proposed drone deliveries, will have to obtain a permit from the regulatory authority. The only exception to this rule is for drones that fly below a height of 200 feet and within ‘uncontrolled airspace’. ‘Uncontrolled airspace’ refers to any airspace that is not under the control of an aviation authority. For example, airspace in and around airports is a controlled airspace. All civil uses within these limitations, including model drones used for recreational and research purposes, will be exempted from obtaining permits.

Operator will need aircraft level training

In addition to acquiring separate permits for each delivery drone, Amazon would need separately licensed operators as well. The Draft Guidelines do not contemplate multiple drones being operated by the same pilot or operator, from which it can be assumed that every drone must have a separate operator. Every operator would have to undergo pilot training equivalent to that of the aircrew of a manned aircraft.

Authorities need to be notified of every flight

For each and every delivery to be made, the operator of the delivery drone needs to inform several authorities- the regulatory authority, the Air Traffic Services Unit and the local police. In addition, a ‘flight plan’ will have to be notified for every delivery. This will include details like the purpose of the flight, the contents of the payload (the item to be delivered) and the route to be taken.


Deliveries in urban areas possible

The draft regulations contemplate flying the drone in urban areas as well. The delivery route taken will have to strictly avoid a list of prohibited areas and zones, such as military and landmark areas (the Rashtrapati Bhavan or the Taj Mahal, for instance). The Draft Guidelines also prohibit drones of any category over the entire territory of Delhi.

Drones to be flown within Visual Line of Sight

The Draft Guidelines specify that drones weighing less than 20 kg need to be flown within the Visual Line of Sight of the operator, or in such a way that the drone is always visible with the unaided vision of the operator. This will make the use of lighter delivery drones impractical. The position on heavier drones is not clear, but it appears that this requirement does not apply to them. The Guidelines also specify that detect-and-avoid technology to avoid obstructions automatically is a must on the drones.

All-weather deliveries not possible

Amazon Prime Air stated that it is developing different drones for deliveries in different climate conditions, like the heat and the rain. The Draft Guidelines in fact also prescribe the weather conditions under which the drones can be operated- during daylight, no surface winds above the prescribed limit and no flying during rains. Clearly in India, around-the-year deliveries will not be possible under these guidelines.

Privacy concerns need to be better addressed

Privacy and safety are the major concerns when large-scale civil use of drones is permitted. While the Draft Guidelines mention that the privacy of persons and properties must be protected, how this is to be ensured must be specified. In the case of no-fly zones like around airports, authorities have the right to seize and disable wayward drones. In fact, the Federal Aviation Administration of the US has come up with specific technology that can detect such unauthorized drones and disable them. The measures that can be taken by a person or local authorities like the police w.r.t a drone which appears to violate their privacy also need to specified. For example, a man who shot down a drone that was flying over his property with a camera attached to it, was held by US courts to have a right to do so. Issues like hacking and remote hijacking of the drones also need to be addressed.

Commercial deliveries on an experimental basis are possible

Deliveries like Amazon Prime Air are clearly a futuristic use of drones. Several stages such as the initial use of drones on an experimental basis to understand the implications and dangers of such deliveries will have to be gone through before such deliveries materialize. While it is clear that large scale commercial deliveries are not yet possible under the Draft Guidelines, there is certainly scope to start deliveries on an experimental basis. Once the implications of such deliveries are understood, specific regulations for commercial deliveries should be issued.

Existing aviation authorities will become overburdened

The current framework of the regulations will make it impossible for a single body like the DGCA, which already has its hands full with manned aircrafts, monitoring drones as well. The kind of use of drones that are being contemplated by people indicates the large scale use of drones in the future. In such a case, instead of imposing such a huge obligation on existing aviation authorities, a separate body should be set up specifically for the use of drones. The sooner such regulatory hurdles will be resolved, the closer we will be to making drone deliveries a reality.

The author is a lawyer with a specialisation in cyber laws and has co-authored books on the subject.

Published Date: Jul 29, 2016 11:53 am | Updated Date: Jul 29, 2016 11:53 am