Almost a year ago when Jeff Bezos teased us with the idea of using drones for delivering packages, the business world started calculating the possibilities this new opportunity presented. Soon after, some enterprising entrepreneur in Mumbai claimed he had delivered a pizza using drones. Just last week two employees of real estate portal Housing.com used one to take photographs of apartments for the website. But their high flying technological prowess only landed them in the nearby police station.
Maybe they knew, maybe they didn’t, but a ban on flying drones has been in place in India since October 2014. While you can easily procure one for as low as R2,000 from an online store or even a toy shop, you are not supposed to fly them in the open. At least not till the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) works out regulations for commercial use of drones. And that is not going to be easy given that the move will require clearance from the air navigation service provider, the ministries of defence and home affairs, as well as other agencies concerned.
While India sits on this problem, or should I say opportunity, at least a handful of countries have put in place regulations that are good enough to tackle the quandary. At the moment, the US seems to have the best set of rules governing drones and other identified flying objects. The May 2015 regulations use the term Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), thus widening the scope of the law. We should understand the challenge here for the FAA as the US has the busiest, most complex airspace in the world, without drones and other radio controlled aircraft adding to the aerial melee.
The rules specify that users have to:
* Fly below 400 feet and remain clear of surrounding obstacles;
* Keep the aircraft within visual line of sight at all times;
* Remain well clear of and do not interfere with manned aircraft operations;
* Don’t fly within 5 miles of an airport unless you contact the airport and control tower before flying;
* Don’t fly near people or stadiums;
* Don’t fly an aircraft that weighs more than 55 lbs (25kg);
* Don’t be careless or reckless with your unmanned aircraft—you could be fined for endangering people or other aircraft.
Over and above this, the national capital region of Washington DC is a no-fly zone. The regulations there stipulate the parameters of a model aircraft operation and permit individuals flying within its scope to do so without any permissions. “Any flight outside these parameters (including any non-hobby, non-recreational operation) requires FAA authorisation,” say the rules. “For example, using a UAS to take photos for your personal use is recreational; using the same device to take photographs or videos for compensation or sale to another individual would be considered a non-recreational operation.” It couldn’t get more clear-cut.
Countries like New Zealand are taking things a step further and have added that drones can be flown only during the day. The Pacific island nation terms these aircraft as RPAS or Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems. Privacy also gets a mention in these rules, and the onus is on organisations and individuals to have a very good reason for collecting personal information in the form of photographs and video. And these aircraft “must use the right radio frequencies, so they don’t cause harmful interference to vital radio systems such as air traffic control, cellular phones, or emergency services.” Violations could end up in prosecution.
Just a compilation of what the US and other countries have done should be a good enough start for the Indian authorities. But even half a year after the ban was imposed we haven’t heard of a rule to govern unmanned aircraft that could also end up having significant impact in security, agriculture and disaster management. Thankfully, the ban does not seem to deter security agencies from using a Phantom drone when needed as they did during the recent riots in East Delhi. But the same eye in the sky could pose a serious security threat as even a small, affordable, drone could be equipped with a high resolution camera. And that is why a practical regulation on what is acceptable in Indian conditions and circumstances is necessary. We can’t just wait for a drone to become national news to start trying to figure out what to do with them.