Allowing drones to take off: Policy needs to adapt to changing times and technology

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Published: June 6, 2020 5:30 AM

DGCA’s latest relaxations good, but more needed.

The companies will have to complete 100 hours of flying by September 30, and submit their data which, will inform regulation, to the DGCA.The companies will have to complete 100 hours of flying by September 30, and submit their data which, will inform regulation, to the DGCA.

The Covid-19 pandemic has delineated quite sharply how India’s lumbering regulation has hobbled technological solutions that could have been marshalled in the fight against the disease. In early days of the lockdown, the Chennai Municipal Corporation had engaged Garuda, a start-up, for sanitisation of hospital complexes and adjacent areas through a Google Maps-guided drone.

The drone covered 1.2 hectares in one flight, and upto 60 hectares in one day, within a signal range of 3 km. Later on, Uttar Pradesh and Odisha also hired Garuda’s services. Had it not been for the pandemic, all this would have drawn the regulator’s ire. The original norms on drone flight, introduced in December 2018, allowed only manual operations of the drone, and had near-total restrictions on drone flight beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS).

In January 2019, the government had a rethink and said it will allow BVLOS from May 2019, but that never really took off, with only a handful of players allowed test runs; which is why the directorate general of civil aviation (DGCA) allowing 13 consortia to start BVLOS operations, as reported by Economic Times, is welcome news. DGCA will allow these 13 consortia, which include food delivery services such as Zomato and Swiggy, and Dunzo, a pure-play delivery service, to test drone-use for a host of purposes, from delivery to surveillance.

The companies will have to complete 100 hours of flying by September 30, and submit their data which, will inform regulation, to the DGCA.

DGCA’s changed stance is certainly reassuring, but policy needs to adapt to changing times and technology, especially in something as dynamic as drone flight. DGCA still hasn’t made it clear whether it will allow autonomous drone operations. If drone deliveries are to be meaningful, companies would want to automate most of the process. Moreover, DGCA can’t have strict licensing conditions for drone pilots.

At present, the bar is set too high, which means concomitantly high labour cost for companies even as drone flight impacts low-end delivery jobs. The ‘no-permit, no-fly’ rule has added to the problem. DGCA intends to enforce this, while countries that first introduced such regulations, viz the UK, Australia, etc, have to ease such provisions in their regulations.

The DGCA launched the Digital Sky portal for registration before flying, but these processes need to be fast-tracked. Covid-19 has made distancing and contactless service delivery a necessity, and has thus, widened the scope for deployment of drones. This is a reality the regulator needs to appreciate. Besides, once it allows recreational flying, costs will come down further and this will spur innovation on drone safety, obviating in time the need for tight regulation.

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