This is a longish piece on India’s drone regulations I wrote for the Centre for the Advanced Study of India’s blog, which was also published in the Hindu Business Line on the 4th of December 2018.
On October 7, 2014, India’s aspirations of becoming a global leader in the manufacture and operation of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs; commonly known as drones) for civilian use were seemingly crushed overnight. The Directorate General for Civil Aviation (DGCA), India’s civil aviation regulator, issued a short public notice that prohibited any non-governmental entity in India from launching UAVs for any purpose whatsoever due to safety and security issues until regulations were issued. Luckily for India’s nascent drone industry, while the notice ended by demanding strict compliance, it did not articulate the mechanisms or identify the government agencies that would be responsible for enforcing this compliance.
As a result, while the ban was effective in curtailing the widespread use of drones, the regulatory chaos provided just enough space for the creation of a stunted industry. In the past four years, it has been relatively easy to contact and hire individual drone owner-operators for tasks as mundane as mapping farms, conducting event videography and taking photographs for real-estate marketing. These individuals have been able to obtain drones by purchasing them in various urban electronic grey markets, getting friends and family to import them in their personal luggage or by purchasing the required parts and building their own drones. A few businesses that have also managed to navigate the complex set of relationships required to manufacture or operate drones in India, without attracting hostile government attention, provide products and services primarily for the cinematography, agriculture, and infrastructure sectors. However, without regulations in place that guarantee the legality of their products and services, it has been difficult for these businesses to attract investors, limiting their ability to grow. It is not surprising to note that India has no indigenous drone manufacturer capable of competing on the global stage against drone industry giants such as DJI, Parrot, and Yuneec.
In the next few weeks, this may change. On December 1, 2018, the first version of India’s Civil Aviation Requirements for the Operation of Civil Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems, also referred to as the Drone Regulations 1.0, was implemented. These regulations have emerged from two public consultations and an unknown number of private meetings, and have been vetted by many government agencies before finally seeing the light of day.
This initial version makes it legal for non-governmental agencies, organizations and individuals to use UAVs for specific operations after they obtain permission from a defined set of government agencies. The Drone Regulations 1.0 also include minimum standards for the manufacture of drones, whether made in India or abroad, information on the mandatory training required by drone operators, and various permission forms for specific drone operations. Under this version of the regulations, some activities with the potential for market transformation are not currently permitted. For example, while functional drone-based delivery is considered to be a major growth area for the drone industry and is a focus for research and development—as it will have a significant impact in online retail and healthcare—it is not allowed at this point of time. This is because it requires the operator to conduct beyond visual-line-of sight (BVLOS) operations and for the drone itself to release payloads while in flight, both of which are explicitly prohibited by the Drone Regulations 1.0.
However, subsequent versions of the Drone Regulations are expected to take the industry’s collective experience into account and widen the scope of permissible operations, thus eventually permitting drone-based delivery and other drone applications that are currently prohibited. The DGCA has designated a set of test sites across the country where drone manufacturers and operators can innovate in a safe and secure environment. The question remains as to whether the Drone Regulations will be able to keep up with the pace of growth of the drone industry.
The primary innovation in the Drone Regulations is the introduction of the Digital Sky platform. This is an online platform where a drone operator can obtain all the necessary paperwork required to conduct an operation, including final flight permission immediately before the operation, as part of an enforcement system designated as No Permission No Takeoff (NPNT). This is an ambitious system with a number of complex moving parts, and it remains to be seen how effective this will be in practice.
Aside from technical issues regarding implementation, one societal issue that the regulations as currently framed do not address is that of inclusivity. Drone applications are extremely relevant to large swathes of India’s rural population. For example, farming communities could cooperatively own and operate drones to map vegetation stress, prevent crop-raiding by wild animals, and even conduct precise spraying of fertilizers and pesticides. As currently framed, the processes and fees involved in obtaining permission to fly a drone would render it extremely difficult for them to conduct the drone operations they need most without hiring companies, which again would increase the costs of such operations. The Drone Regulations 1.0 are far more navigable by start-ups and corporations than by India’s non-governmental organizations and rural communities, which is something that must be addressed in future versions of the regulations.
It is clear today that India is ready to begin incorporating drones into its civilian airspace, and drone applications into society. As was evident even four years ago, drones are here to stay. While it is still possible to meet people today who have not yet seen a flying robot in action in India, this is unlikely to be the case even five years in the future. The range of operations that drones will be legally allowed to conduct within the country will expand, and should not be limited to only those with access to capital, as this will exacerbate existing inequalities in Indian society. It is thus imperative that more representatives from outside the drone industry, such as civil society organizations and advocacy groups, become involved in framing subsequent versions of India’s Drone Regulations to ensure that drones are used for the good of the larger population