Unmanned aircraft systems—drones in popular parlance—have captured the imagination of people across the globe. Much of it comes from the widespread attention drones have received on their reconnaissance and weapons delivery missions in war zones like Afghanistan. Essentially military missions, the idea of an operator sitting in the West Coast dropping ordnance on a faraway target brings to life the idea of a pilot-less aircraft.
However, the role of drones can be extended to civilian requirements as well. In fact, drones are not new to civilian operators—hobbyists have been operating drones for decades. But it is when unmanned aircraft are extended to commercial uses, do we have challenges in the name of legislation, privacy, safety, training and a host of other issues.
In civilian applications, drones come in handy in a variety of industries. Be it asset monitoring, maintenance, upkeep or preparation or response to disasters, drones are ideal for infrastructure or construction industries. The transportation industry will find unmanned aircraft useful for delivery of goods and medicine, especially in inaccessible terrain. India is replete with varied geography, and be it riverine terrain or mountainous regions, drones can provide that much needed connectivity. This is in addition to the fancied role drones are expected to play in e-commerce!
Drones, given their ability to loiter, provide excellent capabilities for monitoring and surveying. This is useful in industries like mining, oil & gas and telecom, where infrastructure may be present in sparsely populated and/or inaccessible terrain. Likewise, agriculture can benefit from unmanned aerial surveys and soil and field analysis. Currently, drones are providing agriculture survey services to insurance companies and governments of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. In fact, industries like insurance, security and media & entertainment stand to gain from deploying unmanned aircraft systems. Be it risk monitoring or assessment or aerial photography, drones have manifold applications.
Clearly, drones represent the next frontier in aviation. Their utility for a country like India cannot be understated. But there are entry barriers.
Clear legislation will be a key enabler. While the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) has issued draft drone guidelines, a clear framework is awaited. Without legal clarity, the industry will suffer from delays as law enforcers take a severely restrictive approach towards drone operations.
For example, the current draft guidelines only allow for line of sight control of drones by the operator—this does not take into account technological progress which allows for beyond line of sight control.
Closely tied to the need for clear regulations is the need for drone safety and security. Drones fly at a lower altitude, especially civilian drones. This raises a whole host of questions relating to privacy, safety of civilian aircraft and infrastructure, and the potential misuse of drones by anti-national elements to photograph sensitive sites. A clear regulations framework will provide the much needed boost to the industry.
While legal guidelines will clear the path for the industry, to make the most of the potential of drones, highly trained manpower is required. Currently, in India, there are very few avenues to ramp up pilot training for drones. Most drone operators are hobbyists—but the industry needs professional operators to help the country ride the growth promised by unmanned aircraft.
In India, many concerned authorities, especially DGCA, have recognised the need for trained drone operators to ensure safety. Recently, the civil aviation ministry unveiled draft norms for operating drones for civilian purposes. After stakeholder consultations, the final and formal Civil Aviation Requirements (CARs) for drones is expected to be in place by December-end.
India is possibly the most promising market for drones given its size, variety in geography and large population. And with possibly the most reformist government in office, it could be bright days ahead for the drone industry in the country.