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Civilian Drone Industry: Are Indian Regulators Sleeping On A Gold Mine?

31/03/2015 8:01 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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Hindustan Times via Getty Images
NEW DELHI, INDIA - OCTOBER 28: Delhi Police has deployed camera-equipped drones for surveillance in riot affected areas of Trilokpuri on October 28, 2014 in New Delhi, India. The prohibitory orders on gathering and movement of people imposed in East Delhi Trilokpuri area following a communal clash were relaxed for three hours as no fresh violence was reported. (Photo by Mohd Zakir/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

In May 2014, Mumbai inhabitants witnessed what could easily have been a scene lifted straight from a sci-fi novel; a pizza was home-delivered using an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), more popularly known as a drone, from a local pizzeria. This experiment was not amiably met by the local police. A notice was shot off to the allegedly offending outlet which had not taken permission of either the local police or the Air Traffic Control of the Mumbai International Airport raising questions over the legality of commercial usage of UAVs in India.

" Usage of UAVs range from purely civilian purposes like photography, film-making, sports, product delivery, scientific and archaeological research, oil and gas exploration, remote sensing, communications etc. to martial uses like domestic policing and surveillance: the possibilities are limited only by our imagination."

The Indian drone entrepreneurs' party was further spoiled by the Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) when it came out with a circular in October, 2014 expressly banning any Unmanned Aerial Vehicles from taking to the Indian airspace without prior authorisation. According to the circular, this authorization is to be sought from the DGCA, the Air Navigation Service Provider, the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Home Affairs and other concerned security agencies. However, the circular carries no detail as to who these "other concerned security agencies" are; nor have they shed any light on how such authorisations may be obtained. There is also an indication that the Wireless Planning and Coordination Wing, under the Department of Telecommunications will need to permit drone operations if the devices use a radio band greater than 200KHz. The consequences of disregarding the said circular have also not been explained, even when asked specifically through an RTI. The incredulity did not stop there; RTI queries to the departments named elicited responses ranging from not even being aware of the DGCA notice to statements that procedures will be established only once the DGCA frames guidelines.

Drones do the darnedest things

Drone use has been synonymous with the fiendishly successful military operations run by the American military forces over the Middle East. Critics have lamented the moral and legal grey area in which the US military drone programme functions. The opinions of these critics were hilariously summarised by famous British-American comedian John Oliver. The most glaring loophole is the lack of data regarding casualties in drone strikes, even in US government reports. Oliver notes: "The question 'How many people have you killed in drone strikes?' is not one of those questions where it's OK to say, 'I don't know.'"

Despite their arguably reckless military use, the legal and moral debate attached to drone use is easily sidestepped for their hard-hitting tactical benefits. Drone squadrons in a nation's armed forces are being put to various uses especially, when an operation is too "dull, dirty or dangerous" for human involvement, including their use in risky, yet vital reconnaissance, combat and logistics operations. The emergence of this new branch in the military-industrial complex has been responsible for the spill over of military drone technology into civil space, with existing and new players actively exploring the vast possibilities in civilian use.

" Patrons of the drone industry understand that they are sitting on a gold mine. Their biggest hurdle is navigating the tough regulatory waters for the responsible use and operation of drones for civilian purposes."

Recent advancements in software technology have allowed a multitude of uses, besides significantly bolstering drone reliability and flying capabilities. Usage of UAVs range from purely civilian purposes like photography, film-making, sports, product delivery, scientific and archaeological research, oil and gas exploration, remote sensing, communications etc. to martial uses like domestic policing and surveillance: the possibilities are limited only by our imagination. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International estimates that the global market for civilian UAVs stood at US$11.3bn in 2013 and has the potential to grow to over US$140bn in the next ten years and is likely to add 70,000 jobs in USA alone, upon full implementation.

Of rules and regulations

Patrons of the drone industry understand that they are sitting on a gold mine. Their biggest hurdle is navigating the tough regulatory waters for the responsible use and operation of drones for civilian purposes. Civil aviation authorities around the world are finding it hard to regulate civilian drone operations within the existing framework of regulations. The implications that drones will have on law, society and the individual are still being fully understood and raise many safety and privacy concerns. The guidelines for their use need to encompass: appropriate licensing of the drones and their pilots/controllers; insurance and liability obligations; privacy protection measures; and adequate regulations to ensure internal security.

Yet, there is still a lack of consensus on certain key issues like what exactly is a drone? Are they remote-controlled or do they include autonomous vehicles too? Are flying toys also called drones? How will drone regulations be enforced and what will be an appropriate penalty? These are tough questions and are currently being debated in the US, EU and in several other countries. But a License-Raj-style case-by-case approval regime with no specified process for approvals cannot be the solution.

"The DGCA's stand on drones has brought to light two unhealthy extremes: from a blank slate till last year, to an opaque ban now. "

The future of drones in India

Until the latest DGCA circular effectively banning any drones to take to Indian airspace, India had been an attractive destination for drone entrepreneurs to invest in and experiment. Start-ups such as Mumbai-based Airpix and Noida based Quidich offer aerial photography and videography services; their clients include both large corporate houses and media houses. Edall Systems, another start-up, based out of Bangalore, has been building drones since 2008 in collaboration with the National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL). They also conduct training sessions for interested students and drone entrepreneurs. Garuda Robotics, based out of Singapore, provides customised solutions to its clients for various drone uses by writing drone-fleet management software.

India is a global giant in the software industry. The service capabilities of drones are greatly dependent on its software capabilities and Indian drone companies are in a unique position to harness India's strength in this area. Unfortunately, the DGCA's stand on drones has brought to light two unhealthy extremes: from a blank slate till last year, to an opaque ban now. Like in the case of Uber, India's regulators, while well-intentioned, have shown a tendency for knee-jerk reactions. Unless the Indian regulators get their act together and build a regulatory environment conducive to the development of the drone industry, while balancing genuine security concerns, India will stand to lose the promising inroads it has made towards becoming a significant player in this nascent but multi-billion dollar industry.

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