Meghna Mishra

Sumit Jay Malhotra

The skies are shut, borders are sealed. The dreaded pandemic is everywhere. However, the Central government is increasingly flying drones — or Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) — for surveillance to curtail the alarming spread of Covid-19, for sanitisation and vaccine and medicine delivery.

In a noteworthy move, the Ministry of Civil Aviation has notified the UAS Rules, 2021, which came into effect on March 15, 2021. These Rules supersede the drone regulations of December 2018. The UAS rules are applicable to every person owning, possessing, exporting, importing, manufacturing or trading a UAS in India.

The rules categorise drones into aeroplane, rotorcraft and hybrid with a further categorisation as remotely piloted aircraft, model remotely piloted aircraft and autonomous unmanned aircraft system. The unmanned aircraft have been further classified as Nano, Micro, Small, Medium and Large based upon their weight ranging from under 250g (Nano) to more than 150kg (Large).

To fly a drone (other than that in the Nano category), a permit by the Director-General (DG) of Civil Aviation will have to be obtained. Rules for each category vary. Nano, Micro and Small drones are not permitted to operate beyond a height of 15m, 60m and 120m, respectively. Additionally, these drones can fly within the visual line of sight and are prohibited from delivery of goods.

Prior approval from the DG will be required for individuals and companies to import, manufacture, trade, own or operate drones. There are several positives to draw from the policy.

What is however restrictive is that foreign-owned and foreign-controlled Indian entities will be prohibited from owning or operating drones in India.

This will directly lead to a situation where foreign players will not be encouraged to invest in the domestic UAS market. Significantly, a “no permission-no take-off” policy has been laid down for all UAS except for those in the nano category.

Likewise, no drone can be operated without a certificate of manufacture and airworthiness. All drones including those in the nano category, are required to be equipped with a global navigation satellite system, geofencing capability and flight controller, amongst others. Unsurprisingly, no drone can be flown over prescribed strategic and sensitive locations and stiff penalties have been stipulated.

Paving the way for setting up drone ports, the rules intend to provide an airport-like setup for arrival, departure and maintenance of drones. So, how successful will we be in reaping the dividends of drones? Making a law would be well worth the effort only when the implementation does not pose practical challenges for the stakeholders. Nevertheless, the UAS Rules are a progressive step that will aid in disaster management.

(Meghna Mishra is partner and Sumit Jay Malhotra is associate, Karanjawala & Co)