In Perspective: India’s big bet on drones

Updated on Aug 30, 2021 06:26 PM IST

Last week, India’s civil aviation ministry notified new rules covering drones — the second time that regulations were updated this year itself. Citing feedback from several quarters, the government said the rules published in March were seen as being restrictive

Representational Image. (Shutterstock) PREMIUM
Representational Image. (Shutterstock)

Last week, India’s civil aviation ministry notified new rules covering drones — the second time that regulations were updated this year itself. Citing feedback from several quarters, the government said the rules published in March were seen as being restrictive.

The resulting rules appear to recognise that the previous regulations more or less amounted to throwing the baby out with the bathwater – a labyrinthine process ostensibly aimed at keeping the skies safe meant people had to navigate through 25 forms, obtain a remote pilots’ license, and get a security clearance before they could fly drones for simple uses such as wedding photography.

In the rules notified on August 26, much of this red tape has been done away with and India’s regulatory framework now appears to be on par with global practices. This will be crucial because drones have emerged as a crucial part of future technologies. World over, the small flying machines are gathering data from hard-to-reach places, helping humans avoid treacherous locations, improving the speed of life-saving assistance and may someday even emerge as a mode of transport.

The government indicated that it recognises this potential and announced it wants to go further by helping establish an industry around it. Here, we decode some of the crucial ways in which the rules have changed and the gains it could lead to, as well as note some of the concerns that persist.

What are the big improvements?

The biggest change that will help the government’s objective is the way people can now gain authorisation to fly drones. A vast proportion of users are likely to fall in the recreational category and the most popular devices in this segment (due to their affordability and practicality) are likely to be classified as micro and nano drones. People will no longer need a remote pilot’s license.

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The government has also done away with the need for a security clearance.

The number of forms and amount of fees have been whittled down too – people now need to identify one of five forms and have to pay one of four categories of fees.

The rules also make it easier for companies wanting to deploy drones as well as those seeking to produce or import it. Previously, a foreign company or its subsidiary was not allowed to operate drones in India. Imports would not be possible unless the civil aviation regulator, DGCA, issued a specific import clearance. Now, both of these hurdles have been removed.

How will they help?

Encouraging use: The initial boost is likely to be evident in the nano and micro drone categories that are popular with hobbyists. The smallest “nano” category start at close to 50,000. But the rules also make it easier for researchers to deploy drones. In India, some of these applications have been in agriculture and geomapping – these are areas where adoption is likely to automatically increase.

Encouraging industry: Companies carrying out R&D of drones have been exempted from filing for certification or remote flying licence if they use the drones within premises they own or rent. This will benefit companies making their own drones for sale. The rules also exempt certification requirements for drones that are not meant for use in India and are only being exported, and pitch for a council to be formed to promote drones. Market analysts expect India’s drone market to log an annual growth rate of over 12% — if the country is able to establish a production ecosystem to cater to such demand, it will lead to thousands of new jobs.

Encouraging innovation: Civil aviation minister Jyotiraditya Scindia said, while briefing the media on the new regulations, that the rules pave way for ultimately even allowing Uber-like drone taxis. A key point that backs up the support for innovation is also the plan for a dedicated drone corridor for cargo deliveries.

What India needs to think about

There are two particular areas of concern that persist.

First, drones are expected to capture vast amounts of data. This will inevitably include sensitive information, such as the location of an individual, their residence and nature of their large assets such as property and vehicle. Advances in technology mean operators can also potentially use drones for close surveillance, using, for instance, face recognition. At present, the regulatory mechanism proposed under the personal data protection law to prohibit the abuse of such data is yet to be put in place.

Second, companies have flagged some concerns with the technical portions of the framework for regulation of drone use. In particular, this has to do with the Digital Sky platform and a feature known as no-permission, no-take off (NPNT). A representative of drone maker DJI, for instance, flagged the lack of development of the Digital Sky portal. Separately, experts also foresee problems in the use of the NPNT system, which is meant to act as an automatic geofencing system to prohibit a drone from taking off in a red zone, or breach the 200 ft ceiling in a yellow zone.

In Perspective takes a deep dive into current issues, the visible and invisible factors at play, and their implications for our future. The column is out every Monday

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    Binayak reports on information security, privacy and scientific research in health and environment with explanatory pieces. He also edits the news sections of the newspaper.

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