By Ramesh Vaidyanathan and Mansi Singh
Drones have myriad applications such as news gathering, commercial surveillance, power line inspection, commercial filming, advertising, law enforcement, disaster relief, agriculture, search and rescue, mineral, gas and oil exploration, etc. While most countries have enacted laws regulating the use of drones, India has been deliberating on the regulations governing the licensing and operation of drones for a long time. Not to be left behind, India released the draft Civil Aviation Requirements (CAR) to provide for the ‘Requirements for Operation of Civil Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS)’.
Previously, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) had in October 2014 released a public notice banning the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle/ Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) in the Indian Civil Airspace by any person, corporate or organization other than those related to the Government of India. The public notice cited safety issues and security threats arising from the use of UAS as the reason for the ban. The Customs Department also included UAS in the list of ‘Dutiable Items’, which need to be compulsorily declared upon arrival. Thereafter, in April 2016, DGCA issued draft ‘Guidelines for obtaining Unique Identification Number (UIN) and Operation of Civil UAS’ (2016 Draft). The 2016 Draft faced widespread criticism for being cumbersome and inefficient. Some of the key criticisms of the 2016 Draft were the following:
Over-regulation: The 2016 Draft seemed to over-regulate. For instance, all UAS operators irrespective of the weight category were subject to the same compliances including the obligation to intimate the local administration before and after every flight.
Weight v. Height: While most UAS regulations around the world use weight (of the drone) as the primary basis for regulation as there is a clear nexus between the weight of the UAS and potential risk in the air and on the ground, the DGCA used altitude of the UAS as the primary criterion. By ignoring the weight of the UAS, DGCA equated the smallest of recreational UAS with much larger devices potentially weighing hundreds of kilos and with much graver safety implications.
Safeguarding Privacy: The 2016 Draft also failed to elaborate on issues of privacy and enforcement. Apart from a cursory statement that “privacy and protection of personnel/property/data shall be given due importance”, no further guidance was provided.
Practical difficulties: The application for obtaining the Unmanned Aircraft Operator Permit had to be filed 90 days prior to actual conduct of operations, thereby necessitating an extremely long period of advance filing.
Skies full of Drones!
As the 2016 Draft had not progressed at all, the situation essentially amounted to a total ban on the use of drones by anyone other than those related to the Government of India. Despite the ban, civilian drones had not stopped from taking off into Indian skies. Drones were being used rampantly in India, albeit illegally. Drone startups have been flourishing in the country and this necessitated the need for the authorities to come up with a robust set of regulations governing the registration and operation of drones.
The newly issued CAR builds on the 2016 Draft and appears more in line with ground realities. This CAR is specifically for RPAS, and the operation of autonomous aircrafts are strictly prohibited. The CAR has pruned down the list of restricted areas where RPAs may not be operated. Also, the 2016 Draft suggested that an application for obtaining the Unmanned Aircraft Operator Permit (UAOP) had to be filed 90 days prior to the actual conduct of operations while the CAR provides that an application for obtaining the UAOP has to be filed only 7 days prior to actual conduct of operations.
Salient features of the CAR
Categories: RPA for civil purposes is classified into five categories, (i) Nano (less than or equal to 250 grams); (ii) Micro (greater than 250 grams and less than or equal to 2 kg.); (iii) Mini (greater than 2 kg and less than or equal to 25 kg.); (iv) Small (greater than 25 kg and less than or equal to 150 kg); (v) Large (greater than 150 kg).
Eligibility: CAR lays down the eligibility criteria for obtaining a UIN from the DGCA for the RPAS. This will be a one-time process and the identification number will be provided only for an RPAS that is either wholly owned by an Indian citizen or a company, or to an RPAS that will be leased to an Indian citizen or company.
Operations: RPAs under all the weight categories must maintain a 500 metre visual line-of-sight and must operate during daylight.
Clearances: Irrespective of height, the operation of RPAs in Mini and above category shall be conducted only after filing flight plan and obtaining clearances from the nearest ATC Unit, Air Defence Clearance and clearance from the Flight Information Centre.
No fly zones: The use of drones would be banned within a certain distance from airports, the country’s borders and some other excluded areas. Violators would be charged under provisions of the Indian Penal Code.
Enhanced usage of drones was leading to a number of security and privacy concerns. Collisions and crashes, hacking, smuggling, breach of privacy, trespass of private property are just some of the concerns that arose from the usage of drones. A legal framework to govern the registration and operation of drones has since long been a need of the hour. Once the CAR comes into effect, it will encourage genuine operations by responsible operators and discourage irresponsible ones.
In the times to come, drones can be very useful for operations like carriage of donated organs, border patrolling and delivery of parcels from e-commerce websites. Legal recognition to the operation of drones in India will also encourage domestic and foreign investors to fund drone related startups in the country. Until now, investors were reluctant to pump money into such startups due to the lack of regulatory clarity. The Government of India is also showing keen interest in the development of technologies for neutralizing rogue drones. These are all positive steps and it will be interesting to wait and watch how the drone laws in India fare once implemented.