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Drones In India: The Pull-Down Effect Of Overly Stringent Regulations

08/09/2016 2:27 PM IST | Updated 09/09/2016 8:40 AM IST
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Overnight in October of 2014, the Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), India's civil aviation regulator, banned all drones from the Indian airspace operated without "prior authorization". The Indian drone entrepreneurs' party was over until, as was stated by the DGCA in its circular, further guidelines were framed by the DGCA.

Drones of different sizes impose different safety and security threats. The gravity and probability of the risk must dictate the extent of regulation.

Sadly, the "prior authorization" clause was intended to be an imagined oasis in the desert. No authorizations have been granted to any private organization or individuals since October 2014 and "further guidelines" are still in process.

The much-awaited draft guidelines

The DGCA has finally, after consultation with all concerned governmental stakeholders, released draft guidelines for the registration and operation of drones in the Indian airspace, for public consultation. The entire industry looks forward to the outcome of this exercise in the form of a final set of guidelines, and more importantly an intention on the part of the DGCA to implement these guidelines in the best interest of the industry while addressing security concerns.

One size fits all?

The draft guidelines recognize drones of four weight categories: micro (less than 2kg), mini (less than 20kg), small (less than 150kg) and large (greater than 150kg). The draft mandates that all drones are to be registered irrespective of their weight.

Drones of different sizes impose different safety and security threats. The gravity and probability of the risk must dictate the extent of regulation.

Of course, it is understood that many applications of drones and consequently risks presented by them remain to be discovered, and the regulatory framework must provide for that margin. However, currently the regulator seems to have taken a "one-size-fits-all" strategy. To begin with, it is important to recognize a separate category of very small drones weighing less than 250 grams, which, for convenience sake, we can call "nano-drones". Nano-drones at present offer limited commercial applications. They have a limited range in terms of distance they can travel, altitude they can climb, or battery life, and are largely used as toys. Nano-drones should be exempt from registration and other onerous requirements provided in the draft for heavier drones.

What's wrong with outside help?

The rampant growth of the drone industry worldwide is subjecting national aviation regulators to an increased workload and resource crunch because of the number of industry applications being filed for approvals. The DGCA has also expressed concern in this regard. Regulators often also lack the capability to assess applications in a rapidly evolving and high-technology area.

We think aliens should also be permitted to register drones in India for R&D purposes, pilot training and recreational purposes.

To cope with the number of applications expected to be filed pursuant to the approval-based framework proposed by the DGCA, it is recommended that the DGCA appoint an external, private organization with individuals having appropriate credentials and experience in design, manufacture, operations and testing of drones to conduct preliminary assessments of registration applications and provide recommendations to the DGCA for final approval. For convenience, let's call this organization the "recommending agency". The recommending agency shall also be qualified and permitted to counsel the applicant for a fee on completing the application and meeting the standards prescribed or expected by the DGCA for final approvals. Such a two-tier process will be beneficial for both the regulator and the industry. The DGCA will benefit from a reduced workload since the preliminary evaluation will be done by an external agency and the applications forwarded to the DGCA will be in line with the expectations of the DGCA. The industry will benefit from faster turnaround and handholding which otherwise the regulator will neither be able to nor permitted to offer.

Ease of doing business

It is also recommended that the registration process should provide for a single-window clearance wherein the recommending agency or the DGCA would co-ordinate with the local police and other concerned agencies. The draft currently requires the registrant to obtain, amongst other things, a character certificate from the local police. Such requirements are either unnecessary or need to be provided for as a single-window process.

DGCA should give blanket permission for import of certain standard components or popular and reliable models of drones, so that excessive permissions do not burden regulators, developers and users...

Furthermore, a web-based system should be provided for registering all drones up to 20kg in weight. The draft requires any drone operator to apply for a permit at least 90 days in advance of the actual operations, which is an inordinately long timeline. The DGCA should reduce this timeline for drones of a lighter weight category and permit fast-tracking of applications upon payment of a significantly higher fee, to provide for commercial exigencies. The draft requires operators to intimate the flight information with concerned authorities, including the Bureau of Civil Aviation and Security, prior to every flight. It is suggested that a web-based system that allows operators to share flight information with all concerned authorities with a single-click and also maintains flight records (another requirement in the draft) will prove very convenient.

Why the xenophobia?

The draft does not permit foreign citizens and companies to register drones. However, we think aliens should also be permitted to register drones in India for R&D purposes, pilot training and recreational purposes. This will enable the Indian drone industry to benefit from expertise available outside India, and will enable foreign industry to undertake R&D activity in India.

Further, the draft regulations necessitate obtaining an import permission from DGCA based on which the DGFT shall provide a license for import of drones. We suggest that the DGCA should give blanket permission for import of certain standard components of drones or popular and reliable models of drones, so that excessive permissions do not burden regulators, developers and users of drones.

In conclusion

While the draft guidelines and ensuing public consultation are good progress towards the end goal of opening the national airspace to civilian use of drones, placing multiple clearance requirements to obtain a registration for drones of all weight categories, especially the smaller nano, micro and mini drones are too stringent.

Given the wide spectrum of benefits drones can serve, the regulations must be amended so as to encourage the operators and domestic manufacturers of drones rather than taking a far too paranoid approach. Of course, the safety, security and privacy risks that drones introduce are to be borne in mind and the regulator will have to strike the right balance.

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