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Flying Concerns

For drones to really contribute to a country’s innovation and economy, a thriving commercial industry supported by a set of favorable and forward-looking policies is a must. In the case of India, the new Unmanned Aircraft System Rules, 2021 may not be conducive for a budding industry. There are things to be learnt from other countries.

Flying Concerns

For drones to really contribute to a country’s innovation and economy, a thriving commercial industry supported by a set of favorable and forward-looking policies is a must. In the case of India, the new Unmanned Aircraft System Rules, 2021 may not be conducive for a budding industry. There are things to be learnt from other countries.

By Avneep Dhingra
By Avneep Dhingra

Associate Editor | Policy & Public Affairs

Drones, Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) have been traditionally used by the Armed Forces for military operations. The concept of drones could well date back to 1849, the year Austria attacked Venice using unmanned balloons stuffed with explosives. However, in the last decade, the UAV technology has rapidly accelerated, and the application areas have expanded well beyond military, law enforcement and security industries. Drones are today delivering goods and medicines to people, aiding in construction projects, making agricultural and mining practices efficient, and transforming surveying.

“With advancements in information technology and the advent of cheaper and smaller sensors, UAVs have become the ‘go to’ solution for all surveyors and mappers. Better integration with various payloads and the ease-of-use options offered by UAVs have started revolutionizing the way geospatial data is collected in many countries,” says Sajid Mukhtar, Chairman & Managing Director, Roter Group of Companies. According to the World Economic Forum, the infrastructure sector is the single most promising area where drones could have a significant impact on the global economy, underscoring the potential for drones to help establish better infrastructure in developing countries.

For drones to really contribute to a country’s innovation and economy, a thriving commercial industry supported by a set of favorable and forward-looking policies is a must. In the case of India, drones continued to face resistance and restrictions in the civil/commercial space even a decade after they were first used by the military in 1999. That’s because there weren’t any rules and legal standards regulating these aerial vehicles. The first document on the laws governing drone activities came in the form of a public notice issued by the Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) in 2014. The notification made it mandatory to take permission to operate drones for civil purposes.

It was only in 2018 that India announced the rollout of the first-ever regulations for commercial drone operations. Since then, the drone industry in the country has witnessed substantial growth on account of increasing awareness, technological advancement and growing adoption across sectors. The COVID-19 outbreak in 2020 further highlighted the importance of UAS, and there were reports predicting the drone industry growth at a whopping 20% CAGR over the next few years. However, now there are fears that the Unmanned Aircraft System Rules, 2021 by the Ministry of Civil Aviation may break the industry’s growth momentum.

Source: Commercial Drone Market, 2020-2027 Report by Fortune Business Insights; and India UAV Drones Market, By Type (Fixed Wing, High-Altitude Long Endurance (HALE), Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle, By Payload, By Equipment, By Component, By Application, Forecast & Opportunities, FY2026 Report

What’s wrong with 2021 rules?

To start with, the new drone rules bear a striking resemblance to regulations in the Licence Raj days, as they introduce a thick bureaucratic layer into processes and supress innovation. Surprisingly, these rules are also in contradiction to the Government of India’s larger policies of self-reliance, good governance, and enabling ease of doing business. Here’s what’s wrong with the 2021 rules:

Prior authorization
Unlike in the past, the new rules require everyone associated with the drone ecosystem to undertake a registration in the capacity of an ‘authorized’ importer, manufacturer, trader, owner or operator by submitting an application with DGCA. Those eligible to apply for the authorization include individuals who are Indian citizens and have attained at least 18 years of age, or companies that are registered and having their principle place of business within India. In case of a company, its Chairman and at least two-thirds of directors have to be Indian citizens, some of who may require a security clearance.

After receiving the authorization, the next step is to submit a separate application to the civil aviation authority to obtain permission for the manufacture or import of a prototype drone, which will be assigned a unique identification number with a 10-year validity. Importantly, the new rules do not mention any timeline within which these authorizations will be granted.

Sajid Mukhtar

With advancements in information technology and the advent of cheaper and smaller sensors, UAVs have become the ‘go to’ solution for all surveyors and mappers

Sajid Mukhtar

Chairman & Managing Director, Roter Group of Companies.

Fresh authorization
The Unmanned Aircraft System Rules, 2021 list out a fresh certification to confirm that the class and type of a UAS meets the specified requirements — “Certificate of Manufacture and Airworthiness”. This certification has to be obtained by an “authorized UAS manufacturer/importer”, which means a person/company authorized to manufacture or assemble a UAS or any of its parts or components. Since the rules do not clearly define ‘components’, each and every small part needed to build a drone may require DGCA approval before it can be imported.

Further, the import procedure would require an applicant to obtain a Certificate of Manufacture and Airworthiness followed by another application to DGCA, which would issue an import clearance and recommend the application to the Directorate General of Foreign Trade, which would subsequently grant an import license. “Drone manufacturing in India is still dependent on import of sensors and actuators which do not get made in India. The need for permissions and licenses for import and manufacturing of every small component would put a lot of constraints and lead to indefinite delays,” says Prem Kumar Vislawath, Founder & CEO, Marut Dronetech.

The new rules also require the UAS manufacturer or importer to establish authorized maintenance centers in India with adequately trained personnel, in line with the Manufacturer’s Maintenance Manual. Imagine a certificate seeker’s agony if the component in question is a bolt or bearing. DGCA has reserved the power to appoint testing laboratories that will carry out testing to ascertain compliance. “The Indian drone industry is practically in its infancy. The ecosystem and support network is slowly starting to take shape. At such a critical juncture, the UAS 2021 rules have thrown new challenges at a fledgling industry,” adds Vislawath.

Authorization for R&D
Under the new rules, all research and development organizations in India, including startups, authorized UAS manufacturers, or accredited institutions of higher education, need to take a prior authorization from DGCA to carry out R&D. Again, the term ‘R&D’ has not been defined, so there is no way to understand the scope of the restriction. “The drone industry is a high-technology industry that needs to keep pace with technology through continuous R&D. With new rules in place, R&D may be severely hampered, as every stage and step would require various permissions and authorizations,” explains Vislawath.
Even after the DGCA authorization is obtained, test flights for R&D purposes would be permitted only in certain premises within a maximum height of 15 meters, preventing testing of the actual capabilities of long-range drones. “The R&D restrictions set forth in the rules, such as only being able to fly at 15 meters, not allowing individuals to do research and no provision for product iteration are impractical,” says Ankit Mehta, CEO, ideaForge.

Prem Kumar Vislawath

Such strict requirements are going to stifle and destroy this nascent industry if timely relaxations and support is not given

Prem Kumar Vislawath

Founder & CEO, Marut Dronetech

Minimum equipment requirement
To obtain a Certificate of Manufacture and Airworthiness from DGCA, drones are required to be equipped with a host of components and features, such as GNSS receivers for horizontal and vertical position fixing, Autonomous Flight Termination System (AFTS) or return to home option, geo-fencing capability, flashing anti-collision strobe lights, among others. It is feared that such a long list of haves will prove to be counterproductive and will have cost implications. “The minimum equipment requirements, especially for a 360-degree collision avoidance system and an emergency recovery system, are excessive and should not be made mandatory equipment as they are not applicable in all scenarios and configurations. These are going to only add cost and lead to delays in systems without necessarily adding to safety,” adds Mehta.

Ankit Mehta

The UAS Rules 2021 pose a challenge to 'Aatmanirbhar Bharat' due to the variety of component level restrictions that have been brought in. As per the rules, it is actually easier to import a drone for certification rather than engineer one from the ground up in India

Ankit Mehta,

CEO, ideaForge

Picture elsewhere

In contrast to the rules introduced in India, drone regulations in some other countries provide a more conducive environment for the commercial industry’s growth. For instance, in the US, the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) rules allowing for small drones to fly over people and at night came into effect recently. According to reports, this is a significant step towards the use of drones for widespread commercial deliveries. The FAA said that these rules will address security concerns by requiring remote identification technology in most cases to enable drone identification from the ground.

Similarly, in the United Kingdom, the talk around drone deliveries picked up pace recently after the country’s Civil Aviation Authority gave its nod to beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) test flights. Meanwhile, the country’s national mapping agency, Ordnance Survey has been quietly helping drone companies to prepare for future success in the delivery world. However, in India, despite having given permission to hyperlocal drones to conduct delivery tests, the Unmanned Aircraft System Rules, 2021 say no to payload — leaving companies like Zomato, Swiggy and Dunzo disappointed. According to DGCA officials, the country’s drone infrastructure is still not “delivery-ready”.

Unlike the rules in India that are feared to have an adverse impact on industry R&D, Transport Canada’s Drone Strategy to 2025, the first of its kind for the country, lays specific focus on research — listing out plans to support industry R&D and collaborations between government and private stakeholders. The document provides a strategic vision for drones, with a focus on raising awareness of the significance of drones, the untapped economic potential of the sector, and the priorities that will drive Transport Canada going forward.

While the drone rules in the European Union focus equally on safety and privacy, the latter doesn’t seem be a key concern under the new regulation in India. For instance, the term privacy is mentioned just once in the rules, and the process of taking consent from people before a drone is flown over them doesn’t even find a mention. “Drones should fly while ensuring the privacy of a person and its property during operation,” say the rules, without mentioning how this will be ensured. The rules further say that the government can exempt any of its agencies to deploy drones if it is in the “interest of security of India,” or in “national interest”, leaving a major scope for privacy violations.

The import procedure would require an applicant to obtain a Certificate of Manufacture and Airworthiness from DGCA, followed by another application to the same authority, which would issue an import clearance and recommend the application to the Directorate General of Foreign Trade, which would subsequently grant an import license

Future concern

At a time when the Indian government is promoting technology innovation and commercialization, and laying stress on fair and flexible business practices, the Unmanned Aircraft System Rules, 2021 appear to be a bundle of contradictions. If India has to become the “drone capital of the world”, an ambition expressed by the Civil Aviation Ministry no too long ago, these new rules would have to be changed. Perhaps an outward-looking approach would be best for flying into the future.

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