Given how unmanned or remotely piloted aircraft, commonly know as drones, hold immense promise for various commercial applications, the government has done well to set up a regulatory framework for drone operations, including commercial use.
Given how unmanned or remotely piloted aircraft, commonly know as drones, hold immense promise for various commercial applications, the government has done well to set up a regulatory framework for drone operations, including commercial use. It will come into force from December 1. The civil aviation requirements, notified by the directorate general of civil aviation (DGCA), mandate obtaining of an Unique Identification Number (UIN) and Unmanned Aircraft Operator Permit (UAOP) for flying of drones, with exemptions in certain cases. The regulatory certainty is quite welcome—just a few months ago, two Mumbai residents were booked for testing out a recently procured drone without having sought prior police permission. But, the government must liberalise some provisions in the new framework—something that can be expected soon, as per the junior minister for civil aviation, Jayant Sinha—to encourage commercial usage.
Under the new framework, civilian users seeking UIN/UAOP have to be Indian citizens. Companies seeking permits for commercial use must be registered in India, with two-thirds of the board members, including the chairman, being Indian nationals. Their primary place of business must be India and “substantial ownership”—and this has not been defined—must be resting with Indian nationals. There is marginal space for companies registered abroad—those that are leasing drones to companies that meet the earlier-mentioned norms may apply for UIN and UAOP. If a business manages to tick all these boxes, it must then navigate a complex web of clearances. All drones operating over delicenced frequency bands must get clearance from the department of telecom. Imported models—India is one of the largest importer of drones—barring those in the lowest weight category, as per the DGCA classification, must get an import clearance from the DGCA, and subsequently, an import licence from the directorate general of foreign trade. Further, barring low-flying, low-weight drones, all others must get home ministry clearance.
There are some reasonable restrictions—buffer zone and no-fly restrictions around airports and certain government facilities, including military and strategic ones. Drones are also not allowed to fly above the obstacle limitation surfaces of an operational aerodrome—this has been prescribed to avoid interference with the flight plan of airlines. There are some onerous, but perhaps necessary, training compliance for operators, apart from flight plan compliances. But, mandating all drones must fly within the visual line of sight of the remote pilot—the US too requires this—placing explicit restrictions on dropping and discharging substances without prior permission, the numerous and complicated police approval requirements, etc, will all prove to be hurdles for efficient commercial application. The ban on substance discharge without prior permission means that India won’t see the same farm applications drones are being put to in, say, France where fertiliser and pesticide application over cropped area is carried out via drones. Similarly, requiring police clearance for every planned flight 24 hours prior to flight will prove a regulatory headache for delivery services, if they are eventually allowed—the government needs to create the right ecosystem for drone operations to add to the economy’s automation dividend.