March 09, 2018

Introduction

Drones or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or Unmanned Aircraft are remotely piloted or autonomous aircrafts of various sizes which have gained popularity as not only toys or recreational items but as tools to be used in different types of businesses. Drones and their operation was not regulated under Indian Law so far and Drones not permitted to be operated without the permission of the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA).

This position changed in October of 2017, when the DGCA released draft regulations in the form of a new chapter dealing with drones in their Civil Aviation Requirements (CAR). The draft CAR describes the use of Drones to include without limitation, the following – “agriculture, damage assessment of property and life in areas affected with natural calamities, surveys (infrastructure monitoring including powerline facilities, ports, and pipelines; commercial photography; aerial mapping)”. The draft CAR also recognises that drones are popular for recreational use and may be used for other purposes as well.

Drone Categorisation

Drones have been categorised as (a) Remotely Piloted Aircrafts, where a person or sets of persons are piloting the drone remotely, and (b) Autonomous Aircrafts which are defined as “an unmanned aircraft that does not allow pilot intervention in the management of the flight”. Under the draft CAR autonomous aircrafts are strictly prohibited unless they are merely operating an automatic flight termination or return to home procedure.

This prohibition on wholly autonomous aircrafts effectively prohibits the use of drones which have pre-determined flight plans and routes, and necessitates that the actual remote piloting to be done by human being directly rather than by a computer or software program. This prohibition limits the utility and variety of applications that autonomous drones could have been used for without the need of human intervention.

Drones have also been categorised on the basis of their maximum take-off weights as follows –

Categorisation Weight
Nano Upto 250 gm
Micro More than 250 gm to 2 kg
Mini More than 2 kg to 25 kg
Small More than 25 kg to 150 kg
Large More than 150 kg

Registration and Permits

The DGCA through the draft CAR have put in two major requirements for the operation of drones – Unique Identification Number (UIN) and Unmanned Aircraft Operator Permit (UAOP).

Every drone other than those exempted as described below, is required to have a Unique Identification Number (UIN). The same can be obtained by way of application along with payment of prescribed fees from the DGCA.

The draft CAR provides that the UIN for individual drones shall be given to drone operators who are Indian citizens or where the business entity is owned by resident Indian citizens either wholly or substantially. Further, if a foreign citizen or foreign company or even a subsidiary of a foreign company desires to register their drones and obtain UINs for the drones, it can only be for the purpose of leasing the drones to Indian citizens or Indian corporations.

The draft CAR exempts Nano category drones with an intent to fly up to only 50 feet above ground level, from the requirement to obtain a UIN. Further, all government security agencies are exempted from the requirement of obtaining a UIN for their drones.

In order to operate a drone, other than those exempted as described below, the drone operator, be it an individual or a corporation, would require a UAOP.

Nano Drones, intending to fly below 50 feet in uncontrolled airspace and operating indoors do not require a UAOP to operate. Micro drones, operating below 200 feet above ground level in uncontrolled airspace and clear of restricted areas do not need a UAOP to operate, however prior intimation to local police authorities and air traffic service authorities is required before operation of any Micro Drones.

As mentioned above, operation of all other Drones would require the UAOP and the UAOP is valid for a period of 5 years. In order to get the UAOP, drone operators are required to obtain and provide the following documents to the DGCA –

  • Permission from the Air Traffic Service in the locality of drone operation;
  • Permission from the property owner where the take-offs and landing of the Drones will be taking place;
  • Details of the persons piloting the drones and their training records;
  • Insurance details where applicable; and
  • A security program approved by the Bureau of Civil Aviation Security.

Operation of Drones

Over and above the requirement to obtain the UIN and the UAOP for certain types of Drones and drone operations, there are certain general requirements prescribed under the draft CAR with respect to operation of Drones, training of drone pilots, equipment requirements and maintenance of the drones.

Many of these conditions with respect to operation of Drones are absolutely necessary such as filing of flight plans, obtaining clearances, operating in only certain meteorological conditions, restriction on one pilot remotely guiding more than one drone, ensuring privacy norms of individuals are not compromised, restrictions on locations where any drone can be flown. These are all examples of necessary regulations for maintaining safety and security and enabling drones to operate with maximum efficiency and mitigating possible loss or damage of property.

However, there are certain regulations which may have the effect of completely negating extensive and commercial use of drone technology. One of these has already been touched upon on above with respect to autonomous aircraft. Another example is Regulation 12.6 of the CAR which provides that “Irrespective of weight category, all RPA operations are restricted to day operation and within Visual Line of Sight only”.

‘Visual Line of Sight’ has been defined in the draft CAR to mean “Operation in which the remote pilot or RPA observer maintains direct unaided visual contact with the remotely piloted aircraft”. This basically means a drone pilot can only pilot a drone to the extent he can physically see the drone, if it goes out of sight, it is an illegal operation of the drone under these CAR. If observed, an operation such as this may result in the cancellation of UAOP as well as fines.

Conclusion

While being a belated development, the draft CAR is a welcome step in regulating drones and operation of drones, in order to enable use of drone technology in serious industrial and commercial applications. The identification and permit requirement, though slightly onerous, are necessary requirements and would enable efficient regulation of the usage of drones in order to fulfill safety and security considerations.

There should always be strict monitoring and scrutiny of all documents submitted with respect to safety, security, privacy and risk and loss mitigation in the form of training and insurance, which has been comprehensive achieved in these draft CAR. However, a lighter touch on the regulations on the operations of the drones is needed in order to enable businesses to use drone technology.

Prohibiting autonomous aircrafts and operation of drones outside of line of sight for all categories of drones is self-defeating for the purpose of enabling drone technology for industrial and commercial use. There are all types of drones which can provide crystal clear imaging to enable any reasonably trained drone pilot to operate the drones outside of a visual line of sight. Further if all the requirements of filing flight plans, getting clearances and approvals have been completed there is no practical reason to prohibit autonomous aircrafts or drone flight outside of line of sight.

A more practical and operational approach towards these regulations will go long way in enabling businesses to begin using drone technology in any meaningful manner and will hopefully be reflected in the final versions of these regulations.

Photo by Sorry imKirk on Unsplash