Opinion

Drones can now fly higher than ever

Paran Balakrishnan | Updated on August 31, 2021

India’s new rules in this regard do away with red tape, creating conditions for drone manufacture

India’s drone operators gave gone into take-off mode now that the government has axed its restrictive rules on the industry and dramatically slashed red tape. Take Bengaluru-based Aarav Unmanned Systems which has moved into overdrive to expand production and be able to meet the eye-popping demand it foresees. Says co-founder and CEO Vipul Singh: “During the next six months we expect at least a 40-time expansion in the number of drones. Revenues will subsequently follow. I see 3-4 times (growth) in the next three-four months.”

The reason for Singh’s optimism isn’t tough to figure: life’s going to be so much easier for drone operators under the new policy. Now also, they’ll have a crack at grabbing a chunk of the global drone market seen exceeding $24 billion by 2022. Ever since drones first began flying, the government has imposed tight controls that stifled the industry’s growth (all flights, in fact, were banned in 2014 after an entrepreneur attempted to deliver pizzas using a drone).

Earlier this year, the government introduced the Unmanned Aircraft System Rules 2021 that continued tight controls policy. But then, to the industry’s delight, it reversed gear. “It’s the first time in my understanding a technology-oriented policy’s been reversed in just three months,” says Smit Shah, director, Drone Federation of India. “It’s a 180-degree flip. We shifted from a very control-centric, very licence-oriented regulation to complete liberalisation.” The Ministry of Civil Aviation says the rules have been framed on the premise of “trust, self-certification and non-intrusive monitoring.”

Most crucially, the Drone Rules 2021, which deal with drones of up to 500 kg, has introduced clarity to the industry. Crucially, it has done away with security clearance for registering and issuing drone licences. It’s also cut the number of forms that is needed to operate drones from 25 to five and types of fees to be paid from 72 to four (these fees have also been reduced to nominal sums). In a few weeks, the government will release a map of the country delineating Red Zones, Yellow Zones and Green Zones.

Defence establishments, airport areas and government offices will obviously be Red Zones. But most of the country will be green-zoned in which no permissions are needed to fly up to a certain height. The rules will even cover air-taxis.

More hopeful now

Certainly, the industry is more hopeful than at any time in the past. Says Shah: “A very rough estimate suggests in the next five years, it will be a ₹50,000-crore market. It could be even 10 times more. The take-off’s started.” There are currently some 100 drone manufacturers in the country, 200 service providers and 25,000 trained drone pilots. Mukesh Ambani, the Adani Group, the Tatas and the Mahindra Group are about to enter the sector in a big way.

Shah and others in the industry say the new rules open a plethora of opportunities. For starters, it’s estimated around 3,000 drones will be needed to implement government mega-projects like SVAMVITVA, which involves creating and digitising land records for India’s 6.6 lakh villages. Then, huge numbers of drones will be needed for schemes like the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bhima Yojana, the government-sponsored crop insurance scheme.

At a different level, people can even start building prototypes for air-taxi services without extra permissions. Predicts Shah: “You’ll see the first drone prototype air-taxi being built out of India in less than 12 months. You may not have people flying in it. But it’ll be a prototype that can then be graduated for trials and people flying as well.”

There could also soon be drones delivering medicines to rural areas and ferrying 200-300 kg of cargo between adjacent cities like Mumbai and Pune. Importantly, the new rules could also result in India becoming a drone manufacturing hub. Says Singh: “The government’s saying you can use India as a manufacturing location. If you’re manufacturing a drone that’s not meant to be operated in India, you don’t need any permission or certification to do it.”

Equally important, removing the scores of permissions needed for every flight will make it easy for industry to use drones for multiple purposes. That’s the crucial element that’s likely to trigger a boom in the coming months. Infrastructure sectors like mining, roads, railways, telecom, power and oil and gas will be able to use drones without applying for scores of permissions. Also, take road construction where drones can be used at every phase — at the construction stage to map the route the road should take. Then, they can be used to track construction progress. And finally, they can be used on a daily basis to identify potholes or other repairs needed. Companies like Tata Steel and Coal India are also using drones for stock management of the huge amounts of material they keep in the open.

While the new drone rules are good news, Singh reckons the lightning speed growth will also create innumerable problems. He’s already expanding his current facility but says he will have to look for another if growth takes off as he expects. He says: “We have to ramp up production. We have to raise more money to expand faster. And we will have to increase manpower and they will also need to be trained.” He adds: “There are a lot of challenges in production including the global supply chain which is badly affected because of the pandemic.”

The industry has other reasons for its optimism. The rules surrounding geospatial data have been liberalised too recently. Also, the Agriculture Ministry has given the green signal for pesticide-spraying to be done by drones with checks and balances. Till recently, this wasn’t allowed. The government is also talking about creating drone corridors for cargo deliveries and a drone promotion council to foster a business-friendly environment.

Look around the world and it’s clear in India the rule changes were needed to allow its drone industry to grow rapidly. There are already half a dozen companies globally that have done thousands of hours of test flights for carrying passengers. City-states like Dubai are talking about regular drone passenger services by 2025. A Chinese company Ehang has conducted test flights around the world. When unveiling the new Drone Policy,

Civil Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia also talked about air-taxi services, saying: “There’s a possibility that similar to taxis running on the road like Uber etcetera at present, we’ll see taxis in the air under the drone policy.” That’s ambitious talk and the coming months will reveal whether the government’s plans will fly as high as everyone is hoping.

Published on August 31, 2021

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