Clearing the air

| Updated on September 01, 2021

Business opportunities and privacy concerns must be balanced   -  NAGARA GOPAL

Drone rules create economic possibilities but we should be mindful of security, privacy concerns

The Drone Rules, 2021, could be one of the game-changing moments in Indian civil aviation. They do away with some onerous regulations that were strangulating the growth of the nascent drone industry. Reducing the number of forms required from 25 to five, type of fees from 72 to four, yellow zones from 45 Km to 12 km surrounding airport perimeter, and abolishing several approvals earlier required for R&D and prototype drones, the new rules have been drafted on the premise of trust, self-certification, and non-intrusive monitoring. Unlike the previous rules, there are no restrictions now on drone operations by foreign-owned companies registered in India. The draft rules propose to reduce fees to nominal levels, delinking fees from the size of the drone. Crucially, it has done away with security clearance for registering and issuing drone licences.

This comes at a time when drones are finding their way into applications in agriculture, e-commerce, road construction, mining, supply chain management, telecom and railways. The new rules will allow the industry to explore new opportunities without having to worry about regulatory overhang. However, the Centre must make sure that it sets up adequate infrastructure. For instance, the Digital Sky platform will be key to ensuring that there are no bureaucratic hurdles. The platform promises a single-window online system. Assurances on the readiness of Digital Sky have been given multiple times since 2018 but it is yet to be fully operational. Under the new rules, this platform will provide an interactive map for drone operations segregating the entire airspace of India into red, yellow, and green zones, which will be critical for drone operations. Without the Digital Sky being fully ready, the Drone Rules, 2021 simply can’t be enforced.

The policymakers should also be cognisant of the negative consequences that come with the proliferation of drone technology. One such area is the protection of citizen’s privacy, especially when drones are used by law enforcement agencies. For example, the Mumbai police have used drones to observe lockdown violations in residential areas such as Andheri and Dharavi. Police in Kerala and Hyderabad have also used drones for similar purposes. This could be misused for widespread and indiscriminate data collection and processing, without any oversight. France’s highest administrative court ruled recently that Paris authorities could no longer use aerial drones to track people violating social-distancing rules in the coronavirus fight after rights groups warned of a threat to personal privacy. The Centre should ensure that agencies that use drones for monitoring and surveillance are classified as significant data fiduciaries under the proposed data protection law. Preventive steps must be taken to ensure that drones do not turn a weapon in the hands of extremists and non-state actors. There is a need to strike a balance between enabling the drone sector to grow and the concerns around privacy and security.

Published on September 01, 2021

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