Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, commonly referred to as ‘drones’, are autonomous aerial vehicles that have become quite popular in recent times. Apart from being used as recreational toys, drones have found wide-ranging applications for purposes as varied as photography, agriculture, maintenance of infrastructure, insurance, disaster management and so on. The size of a drone may vary from a tiny drone weighing only a few grams, all the way up to large industrial drones that are equipped to carry heavy payloads. For the purposes of this post, we shall restrict our discussion only to drones used for non-military purposes.

Backdrop

Operations of drones were restricted in India until very recently, being banned unless prior permission was obtained from the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (“DGCA”). The first foray into regulating this sphere was made in May 2016, when the DGCA issued a draft paper on drone regulations. This paper went through another round of iterations in November 2017, when the DGCA came out with a draft chapter in the Civil Aviation Requirements (“CAR”) that specifically addressed regulation of drones.

The Drone Federation of India, comprising of drone companies and start-ups in the industry, was formed in January 2018 to lobby with the government and present the industry perspective on regulation in this sphere. Following consultations with industry and other stakeholders, the DGCA released the final CAR on Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems governing the use of drones in India for civil purposes, on 27 August 2018 (“Drone Regulations”). The Drone Regulations shall come into effect across India from 1 December 2018.

Types of drones

Drones may be of two types: (a) Autonomous aircraft, which operate automatically and involve no intervention by pilots in the flightpath of the drone; and (b) Remotely piloted aircraft, where an individual is flying and managing the drone from a remote location.

Of these, the Drone Regulations currently apply only to the latter, effectively rendering those drones that are capable of being programmed to have pre-determined flight paths to be illegal in India. As such, remote piloting of civilian drones cannot be automated in India and will necessarily be required to be done by a human remote pilot.

The Drone Regulations classify drones according to their take-off weights. As per this, drones have been classified as follows:

Category Take-off weight
Large drones More than 150 Kg
Small drones 25 Kg to 150 Kg
Mini drones 2 Kg to 25 Kg
Micro drones 250 gm to 2 Kg
Nano drones Below 250 gm

Unique Identification Number

With the exception of government drones and all nano drones flying up to 50 feet above ground level, all drones are required to be registered with the DGCA and have a Unique Identification Number (“UIN”) allotted to them. The UIN forms the basis for the ID Plate of the drone.

The Drone Regulations restrict issue of UINs only to Indian citizens and entities that are substantially owned and controlled by Indian nationals. If a foreign citizen or entity wishes to obtain a UIN from the DGCA, it may do so solely for the purposes of leasing the drone to an Indian citizen or entity. This restriction is also valid for subsidiaries of foreign companies.

Any drone for which a UIN has been obtained cannot be sold to any third parties without prior permission from the DGCA. In case of any misplacement or accidents suffered by any drones, users will be required to notify the police, DGCA and the Bureau of Civil Aviation Security immediately.

Unmanned Aircraft Operator Permit  

All operators of drones are required to obtain an Unmanned Aircraft Operator Permit (“UAOP”) from the DGCA before they may operate any drones. A UAOP obtained from the DGCA is valid for a period of 5 years. A UAOP is not required for nano drones flying less than 50 feet above ground level and micro drones flying less than 200 feet above ground level, in uncontrolled airspace.

Even though operations of micro drones do not need a UAOP, the Drone Regulations require the local police station to be intimated at least 24 hours prior to conducting any operations with micro drones.

Restrictions on drone operations

Apart from the requirements to obtain UIN and UAOP registrations, the Drone Regulations also impose certain other restrictions on drone operations in India.

Perhaps the most controversial restriction in the Drone Regulations requires all drone operations to be during daytime, within line of sight of the remote pilot and up to a maximum altitude of 400 feet. This has the effect of restricting civil drone operations only to the extent that the remote pilot can directly see the drone. If the drone goes beyond visual range of the pilot, it becomes illegal to operate the drone under the Drone Regulations. This restriction could severely inhibit several applications of drones and must be revisited as soon as possible.

Additionally, all drones (except nano drones flying less than 50 feet above ground) are mandatorily required to have certain hardware attached to them. This includes the following:

  • GPS capabilities;
  • Return-to-home capabilities that set the drone on auto-path back to safety;
  • Anti-collision LED lights;
  • A fire-proof ID Plate;
  • A flight controller that is capable of logging flight data; and
  • An RFID or SIM card.

The Drone Regulations also specify the minimum manufacturing standards and training requirements for drone pilots in some detail. Interestingly, as per the Frequently Asked Questions released by the DGCA, delivery of any goods or organisms by way of utilising drones is prohibited in India at the moment.

Digital Sky Platform

The Central Government has announced that it will be launching a new “Digital Sky Platform” by the time the Drone Regulations come into effect on 1 December 2018. This is envisaged as a one-stop digital user portal pertaining to all civilian drone operations in India. The Digital Sky Platform could allow users to apply for UINs and UAOPs for their drones and pilots respectively, ask for prior permission to fly their drones (if required), and generally act as an unmanned traffic regulator in drone airspace to ensure that drones remain on their pre-approved flightpaths.

The Drone Regulations have colour-coded all airspace into three zones. These are: (a) strict no-fly zones such as sensitive installations, international borders, airports etc which have been colour coded red; (b) controlled zones which have been colour coded yellow, meaning that multiple approvals are required to fly drones in such airspace; and (c) automatic permission zones which have been colour-coded green, meaning that flight approvals for flying drones in such airspace may be given in the matter of a few minutes on the Digital Sky Platform.

The Central Government envisages implementation of a “No-permission, No take off” regime for all drones (except nano drones), by connecting the SIM card in each drone with the Digital Sky Platform. Users will be required to obtain prior permission for each flight from the Digital Sky Platform, which will permit or deny the request within minutes. A drone will be able to take off only after the Digital Sky Platform approves the relevant flight request made by the user. If the Digital Sky Platform rejects any flight request, it will lock down the relevant drone through the embedded SIM card.

The Digital Sky Platform is thus envisaged as public safety measure, controlling the flight paths of drones and ensuring that drones are not used in a manner that may endanger public safety.

Drone Regulations 2.0

The Drone Regulations, as they currently stand, have been recognised by the government as only the first iteration of the regulatory framework on drone operations in India. The Central Government, in a Press Release has confirmed that although the Drone Regulations shall come into effect from 1 December 2018, the Drone Task Force established by the government shall simultaneously examine this issue in further detail, providing draft recommendations for the “Drone Regulations 2.0”. The issues expected to be covered by the Drone Regulations 2.0 include:

  • Certification of safe and controlled operations of drone hardware and software;
  • Air space management through automated operations linked to the overall airspace management framework;
  • Drone operations that are beyond line-of-sight;
  • Contribution to establishment of global standards with respect to operation of drones; and
  • Suggestions for modification of CARs.

Conclusion

Finalisation of the Drone Regulations is a welcome step by the government to regulate an existing technology that was in dire need of government regulation. The Drone Regulations provide the various industries exploring drone applications with clarity on the intentions of the government in this sphere and the possible permitted uses of the technology, thus allowing for industry to consider the best way forward in utilising drone technology for commercial operations.

We are of the considered opinion that most of the restrictions mentioned under the Drone Regulations are necessary from the perspective of safety and the government must watch this sphere very closely to ensure that any lacunae in the regulatory regime do not pose any security threats.

The Digital Sky Platform, if implemented effectively, could prove to be vital to encouraging the use of drone technology in India. Unlike most other governmental licensing regimes, this is envisaged as a unifying platform which users can rely on for all compliances related to drones. The “No-Permission, No Fly” regime linking the Digital Sky Platform to the SIM card in each drone is also a commendable measure which will prove to be a gamechanger in regulation of the drone industry.

That said, we also feel that the Drone Regulations in their current avatar are quite restrictive with respect to commercial utilisation of drones. Requirements on flying only in day time and within the visual line of sight of the pilot pose a huge roadblock to the drone industry in India. We hope this is reconsidered by the Drone Task Force when considering the Drone Regulations 2.0.

This post has been written by Viraj Joshi, an Associate in the Delhi office of GameChanger Law Advisors. Please feel to reach out to Viraj at viraj@gamechangerlaw.com

Image credits: Lionel Allorge (Wikimedia Commons)