India: Drone Regulation: Setting Higher Sights

Last Updated: 2 August 2018
Article by Vishwanath Pratap Singh and Srabanee Ghosh

With self-driving delivery robots hitting the roads of USA earlier this year, nothing seems too futuristic in terms of integration of technology into our everyday lives. While we may not see flying cars just yet, the Jetsonian world may not be too distant in the future, with the progressive rise of the use of drones in the recent past. In India, though unmanned aircraft systems have been in existence for the last few decades, the delivery of a pizza in Mumbai in 2014 coupled with Amazon's announcement of launching "Prime air" drones for delivery have caused much brouhaha in the last handful of years.

Reacting to the growing popularity of drones, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation ("DGCA") issued a notice in October, 2014, that noted the safety and security related concerns emanating from the use of unmanned aircraft systems and consequently forbade nongovernment agencies, organizations and individuals from launching a drone in the Indian civil airspace for any purpose. However, the notice also recognized the potential of drones and stated that the DGCA is in the process of formulating and harmonizing regulations for certification and operation of drones in the Indian civil airspace. Pursuant thereto, the DGCA released draft guidelines in 2016, which was replaced with a modified version in 2017 seeking to regulate the use of drones.

The guidelines, which were released after several weeks of consultations with the public, are intended to replace the complete ban on launching of drones with a regulatory framework that could potentially give rise to a new industry sector and increase the commercial use of drones. The guidelines require all civil remotely piloted aircrafts systems ("RPA"), except for those exempted under the guidelines, to register and procure a Unique Identification Number ("UIN") from the DGCA, which would be granted if the RPAs are owned by Indian citizens or by companies / corporations owned or controlled by central or state governments or by companies / bodies corporate registered with its principal place of business in India and whose substantial ownership and effective control is vested in Indian citizens. An entity having its registered office outside of India is eligible to procure an UIN if the RPAs are leased to any of the foregoing organizations. The RPA operators, other than the entities exempted under the guidelines, would also require an Unmanned Aircraft Operator Permit ("UAOP") from the DGCA for their operations.

The procedure for procuring a UIN and an UAOP is fairly detailed, including requiring a clearance from the Ministry of Home Affairs and permissions from Department of Telecommunication for frequencies used in the RPA operations. However, given that the guidelines have been designed on the basis of the size of the drones being flown, smaller drones have been exempted from the requirements of procuring these registrations. The draft classifies drones into the following five categories on the basis of their maximum take-off weight ("MTOW"): nano (less than or equal to 250 grams), micro (greater than 250 grams and less than or equal to 2 kg), mini (greater than 2 kg and less than or equal to 25 kg), small (greater than 25 kg and less than or equal to 150 kg) and large (greater than 150 kg). RPAs in the nano category intending to fly upto 50 ft above ground level ("AGL"), and those owned and operated by government security agencies are exempted from obtaining UIN. Further, (a) nano RPAs operating below 50 ft AGL in uncontrolled airspace and indoor operations, (b) micro RPAs operating below 200 ft AGL in uncontrolled airspace and clear of prohibited; restricted and danger areas; Temporary Segregated Areas and Temporary Reserved Areas as notified by Airports Authority of India; and (c) RPAs owned and operated by government security agencies; are exempted from procuring UAOPs. However, the users of any such RPA not being a nano category RPA, are required to intimate the local police authorities before conduct of actual operations. Additionally, model aircrafts with an MTOW of upto 2kgs, without any payload flown below 200 ft inside educational institution premises are also exempted from procuring UIN and/or UAOP. Per the draft guidelines, aeromodellers/ recreational flyers under the above category are fully responsible for operation, safety and security and are required to inform the local police authorities before undertaking such activities.

In addition to the above exemptions from registrations, smaller sized drones are also subjected to much lesser scrutiny in terms of their operations. For instance, unlike other drones, owners / operators of nano RPAs are exempted from notifying incidents / accidents to the authorities, pilots of nano and micro categories are not required to undergo / possess the training requirements specified under the guidelines, nano RPAs are not required to be equipped with the specified serviceable equipment / components, nano and micro RPAs while operating upto 50 ft and 200 ft AGL respectively are exempted from filing flight plans and obtaining Air Defence Clearances, nano RPAs are exempted from informing local police authority prior to commencement of operations and operators / owners who do not hold an UAOP are not required to maintain specified records. Further, nano and micro RPAs inside covered premises may also be operated in restricted meteorological conditions and / or areas with the permission of the local police authorities.

Thus, the guidelines primarily seek to strike a balance between the safety related concerns of the government and the potential opportunities in this sector. Particularly, the flexibilities in the draft guidelines vis-à-vis smaller drones and drones operating at lower altitudes, are expected to encourage companies engaged in e-commerce / other deliveries as well as those engaged in prospecting, surveying and mapping. For a clearer picture, it may be noted that the global e-commerce giant, Amazon, had recently stated that 84% of its orders are under five pounds (i.e. a little over 2 kgs) – consequently, most of the orders received may be delivered vide nano / micro drones, for which the applicable regulations are not as onerous. Accordingly, Amazon, along with several other owners / operators of drones have been busy filing patents over the last handful of years in relation to drone technologies, including several technologies (such as detect and avoid capability of drones etc.) that may allay the safety concerns of the authorities to a large extent. The guidelines, once passed, will provide such e-commerce delivery companies much required respite from crowded, and sometimes less accessible, roads enabling them to make affordable, efficient and timely deliveries. The government had also acknowledged the possibility of such e-commerce deliveries via drones in the Aero Expo in 2017.

The interest generated in drones pursuant to its myriad uses in other sectors such as surveillance, agriculture, crowd monitoring, geographical mapping, defence, prospecting, search and rescue operations, photography, law enforcement, property inspections and / or construction and is also not unwarranted, given the efficiency of drones as compared to manned exercises. For instance, it has been estimated that drones can reduce surveying time by almost 98%. Several venture capital and other funds have therefore expressed an interest to invest / have already invested in drone manufacturing companies that have partnered up with businesses requiring such solutions. Examples include, ideaForge, a company known for its smaller unmanned aerial vehicles and for providing solutions to the Indian Armed Forces for surveillance, crowd monitoring and rescue operations, which has raised USD 10 million as part of its Series A investment, from Infosys and two California based venture capital funds. ideaForge has also expressed its satisfaction with the proposed guidelines and has noted that the guidelines would not result in unnecessary complications.

The government seems to be proceeding in the right direction as it is simultaneously evaluating 'international drone alliances" with other nations. It has also set up a task force a few months back to prepare a roadmap for implementation of this technology. Since this technology is dynamic and is currently at a very nascent stage at best, the government will need to be quick-footed in addressing concerns and evolving the law, starting with notification of the guidelines. Although there are certain points of concern in the proposed regulations, they appear to be along the same lines as the regulations in effect in certain other developed countries. Further, given that the present guidelines do not prescribe cumbersome rules or standardization procedures for designing and developing drones, the ease of manufacturing / operations is expected to boost activity in this sector.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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Vishwanath Pratap Singh
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