National Drone Policy is progressive but there are grey areas that need to be addressed

The DGCA released version 1 of the National Drone Policy, 2018 (Drone Policy) on 27 August 2018.

In India, the first notification regulating the drone industry came as a public notice issued by India’s Civil Aviation regulator, Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) on 7 October 2014. The notification laid down the need for potential operators to take “approval from the Air Navigation Service provider ie the Airport Authority of India, Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Home Affairs, and other security agencies, besides the DGCA.”

The list of approvals and prerequisites were conditions masquerading as a shadow ban, as it was almost impossible to get clearances from each body. The only positive part in the notification was the future promise by Civil Aviation Ministry that, “DGCA is in the process of formulating the regulations and globally harmonise those for regulatory certification and operation for use of unmanned aircraft system (UAS) in the Indian civil airspace.”

A drone is used to survey high-voltage power lines in Wilnsdorf, Germany. Image: Reuters

A drone is used to survey high-voltage power lines in Wilnsdorf, Germany. Image: Reuters

After a long waiting period of two years, in April 2016, the DGCA prepared another set of draft guidelines on the use of drones for civilian or recreational purposes and invited suggestions and recommendations from different stakeholders for a period of 21 days.

In October 2017, the DGCA issued another set of guidelines seeking, once again, comments from the stakeholders by 31 December 2017. However, flying drones had a tremendous impact on security and privacy. Taking into consideration the rapid changes taking place within the industry and global market of drones, repeated draft guidelines were a reflection of the pressure they were facing from multiple stakeholders to develop an effective regime.

The DGCA, Government of India released the much-awaited National Drone Policy, 2018 version 1 (Drone Policy) on 27 August 2018. The subject matter of the regulation is ‘Requirements for Operation of Civil Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS)’. The policy legalises the use and operation of drones in India and is set to come to effect from 1 December 2018.

The rules announced are the first in a series of several rules and regulations and are titled Regulations 1.0. The Minister of State for Civil Aviation Jayant Sinha has reiterated that the Drone Task Force, chaired by him, is working on policy regulations for the future (Drone Regulations 2.0.) which will allow for flying automated drones that operate beyond the line of sight and also regulate the certification of safe and controlled operation of drone hardware and software, airspace management through automated operations, establishing global standards, among other modifications.

The DGCA has defined Drone/remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) as an unmanned aircraft piloted from a remote pilot station. The remotely piloted aircraft, its associated remote pilot station(s), command and control links and any other components form a Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS). As per the civil aviation requirements issued under the provisions of Rule 15A and Rule 133A of the Aircraft Rules, 1937, these drones will need a registered Unique Identification Number (UIN), Unmanned Aircraft Operator Permit (UAOP) and require to adhere to other operational requirements.

Representational image.

Representational image.

The DGCA has classified drones into five different categories in accordance with their maximum take-off weight as follows:

  • Nano — Less than or equal to 250 g
  • Micro — From 250 g to 2 kg
  • Small — From 2 kg to 25 kg
  • Medium — From 25 kg to 150 kg
  • Large — Greater than 150 kg

With this developmental policy, Indian drone tech startups are expected to delve into the market with innovative solutions for the civilian domain.

A FICCI and EY report noted that the Indian unmanned aerial vehicle (UAS) market will cross $885.7 million by 2021 when the global market size can be valued at $21.47 billion. This will boost the drone job market, with jobs such as UAV operators and pilots to software developers and engineers vis-à-vis industrial and environmental situations implementing drone steering skills.

The Government of India is also planning on investing extensively in research, training and skill development in robotics, Artificial Intelligence, digital manufacturing, Big Data intelligence and Quantum communications, among others.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) has empowered us to recreate the human thought process to programs that fine-tune their decision-making process and evolve with time to make better decisions. The application of AI has touched various fields of applications from logistics systems, communication networks, manufacturing systems, security setups to even traffic control. Automation of every new area of application is greatly contemplated and one such novel field is drone logistics.

Still outnumbered by their human controllers, the next generation of automated drones will be revolutionised by AI. The Drone Policy shows India’s commitment to using AI for technological, industrial and economic growth. AI will enable machines such as drones to make decisions and operate themselves on behalf of their human controllers. This scenario of a Terminator-like capacity when a machine gains the ability to make decisions and learns to function independently, the potential benefits must be weighed against the possible harm on security and privacy.

Globally, drones are employed for security monitoring, safety inspections, border surveillance and storm tracking. A recent example of researchers using AI and drones to identify human behaviour used a combination of deep learning algorithms trained with 20,000 images was published.

Google has invested in research and development for introducing its very own product Wing, which was only focusing on delivery of goods, to compete with traditional goods delivery companies like FedEx and DHL. The product, which is currently being tested in the United States, aims to increase access to goods, reduce traffic congestion in cities, and help ease the CO2 emissions attributable to the transportation of goods. Amazon is working on their very own drone named Amazon Prime Air, designed to deliver packages to customers in 30 minutes or less. This, however, cannot be applied in India until new amendments are announced to the existing policy.

Microsoft has introduced three drones mainly for recreational purposes namely Parrot Max Jumping Race Drone, Parrot Airborne Cargo Mars Drone and Parrot Disco FPV Drone. With the new policy, Microsoft and other big players can now market these products in India.

According to a study conducted by BIS Research, a global market intelligence and advisory firm, the global commercial drone market size will touch $21.47 billion and is expected to grow at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 16.9 percent over the period. Aviation regulatory bodies such as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) of the United States and the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) have banned the use of UAVs acknowledging their limitations in regulating air traffic on such a huge scale and the safety and security of the citizens.

AeroVironment Inc., BAE Systems, Elbit Systems Ltd., General Atomics, Israel Aerospace Industries, Lockheed Martin Corporation and the Boeing Company dominate commercial drone market share globally.

Technology licensing and vertical integration are predicted to be commonly adopted strategies of the industry participants. According to PwC, in the United Kingdom alone, drones could give a £42 billion GDP boost to the UK economy by 2030, and create 6,28,000 new jobs.

A policy on paper may convey a grand vision. The key, however, is its productive implementation. There are various restrictions like licenses, investment restrictions and control regulations on foreign drone players operating in India.

This policy is still at its nascent stage, so it is difficult to ascertain the hits and misses until an effective auditing is carried out of its implementation. This also imposes a responsibility on the government to legislate and provide a legal framework for issues like privacy and security. There are high chances that the regulations may get modified and changed in the future considering the new challenges.

Adithya Anil Variath is a final year student of law at University of Mumbai’s School of Law

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