Stringent Drone Regulations in India- Hindrance to the post-COVID Paradigm Shift?

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, otherwise known as drones, are indeed one among the revolutionary, game-changing inventions of the 21st century. Initially developed for military purposes, the usage of drones has increased multiple folds in various sectors ever since then. From food delivery to the media sector, the usage of drones has indeed revolutionized the way one sees, perceives and captures this world. Having said this, law has a say in every other sector and plays a vital role in regulating any activity.

With regard to drones too, law has been playing an active role in regulating the sector. However, the Indian laws with respect to this sector have often been alleged to be the most stringent one’s comparative to the laws of other global nation states. The mere sight of a drone hovering in our surroundings is still a bleak possibility while the same has become the new normal in almost all western nations. The reason for the aforementioned situation has its source from one point, the stringent and strict norms imposed by the centre on the operation of drones within The Republic of India. What are these regulations in India? Why are they alleged as stringent ones? Are these strict regulations justified? The much-needed paradigm shift in the post COVID world? Policy changes in the near future? Let us analyse the above raised questions in a constructive manner.

The Regulatory Framework

There is no parliament enacted Act regulating the drone sector in India. This, in itself, is a big setback to the sector as a lot of complex regulations from various statutory bodies currently govern the sector. According to the Ministry of Civil Aviation, flying a drone is legal in India. It is a big leap considering the fact that Drone Operation for civil requirements was banned in India for a brief period starting from October, 2014. The Directorate General of Civil Aviation is the statutory authority that issues regulations, directives and norms for the operation of Drones in India.

The first of its kind regulatory framework for drones was issued in August, 2018 by the DGCA under the title ‘CIVIL AVIATION REQUIREMENTS SECTION 3 – AIR TRANSPORT SERIES X PART I ISSUE I’[1] which came into effect from the December of 2018. Other relevant rules and directives governing the same include The Civil Aviation Rules issued under the provisions of Rule 15A and Rule 133A of the Aircraft Rules, 1937[2], DGCA Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems Guidance Manual, 2019[3] and supplements issued by the Airports Authority of India. Again, the enforcement of all these rules and regulations falls on the DGCA and hence there has always been a heavily regulated, rather detrimental drone regulation policy followed despite the lifting of the bans. This, ultimately, makes the whole process of purchasing a drone and air lifting it off from Indian soil is rather complicated. Let us briefly understand the process.

Registration

The Digital Sky Platform[4] launched by the DGCA currently manages all the unmanned air traffic over the skies of India. Once drones are purchased legally, the same have to be registered on the Digital Sky Portal.

Unique Identification Number

A unique identification number is provided to every drone following registration. It has to be engraved on the drone with fire-proof plates. It is pretty similar to the number plates, that road transport vehicles bear. A plethora of rules pertaining to the same have been laid down under para 6 of the 2018 Regulations. Also, registration processes vary for imported and indigenous variants, making the process gruesome and complex.

License- Unmanned Aerial Operator Permit

For operation of drones, an Unmanned Aerial Operator Permit is mandated for operations above 200 feet. This permit comes with a fee of ₹ 25,000. Though, nano category drones are exempted from the same, they are set an upper limit of 50 feet. The costs are indeed staggering,  the same might be feasible for a multinational but not for a photographer who wants to use the same for a marriage photoshoot. Even the renewal of these licenses come at a fee of ₹ 10,000 which is alarming. The rules for the same under para 7 of the regulations and are again complicated owing to the documentation and pre-requirements they come with.

Safety

The drones also have to be equipped with all the necessary safety standards. This includes Return-To-Home feature, the ID plates, anti- collision lights, flight controller, so on and so forth. Insurance covers are also a must. Once these are check listed, then comes the operational regulations. These operational regulations are the biggest detriments to the drone markets in India.

The ‘No Permission, No Take-off’ clause

According to this clause under, before every other take-off, permission for the same has to be obtained through the Digital Sky Platform. It is stated that the app immediately processes these requests based on an automated system and grants the same. However, the biggest discovery with regard to this is the fact that many a times, this platform is not operational! Comparing this with the existing global legislations, there is no need for one! Yes, the ‘No Permission, No Take-off’ clause is the first of its kind worldwide. No other existing legislation, even drone hubs such as U.S.A. or China have such a strict policy for take-off.

Software

The No Permission No Take off clause has a huge say on the drone industry on a whole apart from being an operational hinderance. Drone manufacturers are to mandatorily install a software that complies with this NPNT clause. That is essentially a sync system, where there is take off only if permission is granted by the Digital Sky application. With Chinese firms such as Dà-Jiāng Innovations, a.k.a. DJI already taking control of the global drone market, such implausible expectations placed on the companies make it impossible for the firms to invest in Indian drone market, which has already shrunk to a negligible one in comparison to the global market. This again, has a lot to do with the 2014 ban.

In air Regulations

Even after an individual air lifts a drone, there are a plethora of rules one has to keep in mind while operating a drone mid-air. Indian regulations currently allow ‘visual line of sight’ operation only. That is, flying drones are at all times to be in the visual line of sight of the operator. This is again improbable expectations set by the Indian regulations. A huge part of the objective to use a drone is done away with this rule because BVLOS, i.e., ‘Beyond Visual Line of Sight’ operation of drones is needed for many sectors such as terrain research and only BVLOS ensures optimal efficiency of drones. This being said, the Draft Drone Policy 2.0 has recommended for expanding operations to beyond VLOS.

Absence of standard authority

Even if all the above-mentioned specifications are met with regard to the manufacturing, operational procedures and licenses, the absence of a standard regulating authority comes as a rather disheartening news for drone enthusiasts. The DGCA as a matter of fact, does not have equipped labs or facilities to certify these drones or vouch for their safety. Thus, it boils down to an authority that lays down stringent norms but then does not meet the expectations when it comes to its own backyard.

Violation and Enforcement

Strict enforcement measures have been proposed for the violators the drone regulations. This includes suspension or cancellation of UIN of drone & license of operator if found in of violation of regulatory provisions. Also, action under relevant Sections of the Aircraft Act 1934[5], or Aircraft  Rules and penalties under Section 287, 336, 337,338 of the IPC are stipulated for collateral damages or security threats. This indeed makes the going tough for entities, especially foreign entities that want to operate in India, who might be perplexed about the numerous legislations in place for enforcement purposes.

Strict Norms- Justified?

Having addressed all the disadvantages and detriments posed by the stringent drone regulations in India, one also needs to be aware that the laws, rules and regulations surrounding the drone sector are still in their initial, developing stages worldwide as well. There is no established X or Y procedure or protocol. Drone laws around the world are evolving day by day with new developments in the tech sphere related to the field. India, being such a vast landmass has its own problems. India is a nation that has constantly been subjected to security threats in the past. Due to the paucity of technology or personnel, it is indeed a tough ask for the authorities and the government to keep a track of all the UAVs or RPAs operating over such a huge landmass.

This seems to justify the need for stringent norms. Also, incidents around the world such as the assassination of Iran’s Major general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Qasem Soleimani, through a drone strike near Baghdad International Airport have raised serious safety concerns[6]. Earlier, The National Counter Rogue Drone Guidelines[7] was released by the Ministry of Civil Aviation in 2019 with an aim to address the potential law and order issues and security threats if there was an unchecked and unregulated operation of drones in Indian Airspace. This again brought things back to the blackboard as feasibility of enforcing the regulations became another issue.

Thus, India as a nation has always taken a careful stance against the drone industry. Time and again it has remained sceptical about amending the drone laws despite recommendations from various fronts.

Moving Forward

The DGCA has indeed been taking progressive efforts to relax these strict norms. The 2019 Drone Ecosystem Policy Roadmap[8] published by the Ministry of Civil Aviation saw a significant change in the mindset of the policy makers and they seem to sense the need for relaxation of the laws surrounding the sector. Following this, in May 2019, the DGCA had invited for an expression of interest from firms that had the potential and were willing to conduct experimental beyond visual line of sight operations of drones[9]. This again is perceived as a significant change in attitude.

The Draft Drone Policy 2.0 also talked about the creation of drone corridors over the Indian airspace for civilian use. It also focused on various aspects where the initial regulations kept quiet such as ‘privacy by design’ of drones, establishment of dedicated Drone Directorate, setting maximum life cycle of drones, 100% FDI for drones and drone port installations.

January, 2020 saw two major developments in this regard. On the 6th of January 2020, Hon’ble Defence Minister, Rajnath Singh launched the No Objection Certificate portal[10] for undertaking aerial survey. This is expected to significantly reduce the time taken to process such requests although the final call still lies with the DGCA.

A public notice dated January 13, 2020, issued by the Ministry of Civil Aviation gave out detailing for a one-time opportunity for voluntary disclosure of non-compliant drones that were operating in India[11]. This indeed came as a relief to many, as they could obtain their Drone Acknowledgement Number, Ownership Acknowledgement Number through the Digital Sky Application. This scheme was closed on the 31st of January, 2020.


The Paradigm Shift Post COVID-19

As stated earlier, COVID-19 pandemic has indeed brought in new life and given a new outlook to the otherwise reeling drone sector. With COVID-19 continuing its onslaught all over the face of the earth, the new norm has become social distancing and contactless operations. This has given the drone sector a vital push and has come as a boon to various other industries where direct contact is next to unavoidable. This includes usage for food delivery, medicine delivery, and surveillance. The recently launched Medicine from the Sky by the World Economic Forum initiative[12], Medicine from the Sky, in in tandem with the Government of Telangana and Apollo Hospitals stands as a proof for its rapid growth in recent times. The DGCA has also approved for drone delivery to around 13 companies, including Swiggy, Zomato, Dunzo and placed a 100-hour mandatory test flight time by the 30th of September to kickstart full scale services[13].

This experimental process has its aim at getting conclusive results for the feasibility of BVLOS operation of drones. Having said this, it is still the multinationals that are on the field, and several significant reforms are needed before we can witness the indigenous, local users and companies harness the potential of drone technology. These stringent norms may significantly shatter this paradigm shift in the Indian sense.

But then, enthralling times lie ahead of us! The time is indeed ripe for a drone to pullover at our doorstep to deliver a pizza! This will certainly become a reality once the stringent, implausible, improbable norms pertaining to the sector are done away with. With the global nations turning towards harnessing the benefits of the same, India certainly ought to kickstart its drone operations on a full scale. The enactment of one specific Act by the parliament in the place of a complex, rather confusing regulatory framework is a must for achieving the same. On an endnote, according to a report by FICCI and EY, the Indian UAV market expected to touch a meagre $885.7 million by 2021[14] while the global UAV market is placed around $21.47 billion in around the same time. If this does not voice out the need for relaxing the norms strangling the sector, the author positively has no idea whatsoever as to what else will!


[1] Requirements for Operation of Civil Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS), 2018, (India).

[2] The Aircraft Rules, 1937, Department Of Industries and Labour, (New Delhi).

[3] Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems Guidance Manual, Office of the Director General of Civil Aviation, 2019, (New Delhi).

[4] Hosted at https://digitalsky.dgca.gov.in/

[5] The Aircraft Act, 1934 (No. 22 1934 dated 19th August, 1934).

[6]Centre tightens drone policy after Soleimani’s killing, starts ‘Digital Sky Platform’ to monitor, THE FREE PRESS JOURNAL, (Jan. 10, 2020), <https://www.freepressjournal.in/india/centre-tightens-drone-policy-after-soleimanis-killing-starts-digital-sky-platform-to-monitor>, last accessed on 6 June, 2020

[7] National Counter Rogue Drone Guidelines, Ministry of Civil Aviation, 2019, (India).

[8] Drone Ecosystem Policy Roadmap, available at: <https://www.globalaviationsummit.in/documents/DRONE-ECOSYSTEM-POLICY-ROADMAP.pdf>, last accessed on 6 June, 2020

[9] Invitation for expression of Interest for Conducting Experimental Beyond Visual Line Of Sight (BVLOS) Operations of Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA), Directorate Of Civil Aviation, 2019, (New Delhi).

[10] Hosted at : https://modnoc.ncog.gov.in/login

[11] Voluntary Disclosure of information of non-Compliant Drones flying in India, Ministry of Civil Aviation,<https://www.civilaviation.gov.in/sites/default/files/Drone_Registration_Public_Notice_13012020.pdf>, last accessed on 6 June, 2020

[12] Vignesh Santhanam, How drones could change the future of healthcare delivery, WORLD ECONOMIC FORUM, (May 08, 2020), <https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/05/medical-drone-delivery-india-africa-modernize-last-mile/> last accessed on 6 June, 2020

[13] Jagmeet Singh, Zomato, Swiggy, Dunzo Get DGCA’s Approval for Fly Test Drone Deliveries in India: Report, NDTV, (June 08, 2020),<https://gadgets.ndtv.com/apps/news/zomato-swiggy-dunzo-spicejet-drone-deliveries-dgca-bvlos-2241414>, last accessed on 6 June, 2020

[14] Make in India for Unmanned Aircraft Systems, FICCI, available at: <http://ficci.in/spdocument/23003/Make-in-India-for-UAS.pdf>

Pascal Sasil R. from School of Law, Christ University

His work focuses on contemporary international legal issues 

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