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Drones must serve a larger populace

Shashank Srinivasan | Updated on December 04, 2018

While the new rules permit drones for civilian use, high costs put them beyond the reach of NGOs and rural communities

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) 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.

Regulations 1.0

In the next few weeks, this may change. On December 1, 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, organisations 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 regulations will be able to keep up with the pace of growth of the drone industry.

Key innovation

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. While the DGCA has stated that both the platform and the manual for the Digital Sky platform will be available starting December 1, recent reports have indicated there are delays in the creation of the Digital Sky system. As the implementation of the regulations depends upon a successful deployment of the Digital Sky platform, it is possible that the implementation of the Drone Regulations 1.0 will be delayed until the necessary infrastructure is in place.

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 fertilisers 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 organisations and rural communities, which is something that must be addressed in future versions of the regulations.

It is imperative that more representatives from outside the drone industry, such as civil society organisations and advocacy groups, become involved in framing subsequent versions of the regulations to ensure that drones are used for the good of the larger population.

Shashank Srinivasan, an experienced drone pilot, is the founder of Technology for Wildlife, a consultancy that helps organisations understand, access and deploy technology for wildlife and environmental conservation. This article is by special arrangement with the Centre for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania.

Published on December 04, 2018

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