We always read about the auto flying drone delivering pizzas and small packages to the area of your choice. It is almost like micro delivery in a regulated manner with monitoring enabled. But the big risk of drones was visible last week when Gatwick Airport in London was virtually shut down for 3 days after a drone was sighted nearby and the airport had to be shut on security considerations.
Understanding the Indian licensing regime for Drones
India has been a little slow off the block but finally we have a policy paper on Drones. The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), which regulates all civil aviation in India, announced a licensing regime for commercial use of remotely piloted aircraft systems, better known as Drones. What exactly does the policy entail? Let us first understand what drones are all about.
Drones have multiple applications especially in a vast and diverse country like India where last mile transport systems are still work-in-progress. Drones offer a low-cost method of delivering products in a safe and efficient manner. It has multiple uses. For example, drones can be effectively deployed to conduct aerial surveys for data collection like cyclones, natural disasters, cropping patterns, cloud patterns etc. Drones can inspect tall building structures, oil rigs (on shore and off shore), bridges, flyovers etc to get advance warning in case of any civil faults. Pizza may be a simplistic usage but Drones can be used to deliver seeds and fertilizers to farmers, relief equipment in the case of natural disasters etc.
India is starting off in a small way on drones
The following are some of the key highlights of the Drone policy to begin with. Of course, this is the initial draft and it is subject to modification based on the experience and the live impact analysis.
- To begin with, drones can operate only within sight and during the day and will be limited to a maximum altitude of 400 feet. Night drones are not permitted as of now for safety and security purposes.
- Small drones weighing up to 250 gm and operating below 50 feet, as well as those in the micro category, weighing between 250 gm and 2 kg operating below 200 feet will not be required to register. The policy has taken effect from December 01st 2018.
In-sight operation of drones may be a limitation
Currently, regulations do not permit drones that require registration to be operated out of sight. Hence their commercial applications in the current regulatory context may be largely limited. The big challenge will be to get the regulatory framework in place which is in sync with national security and at the same time also encourages businesses to adopt the efficient use of drones. An estimate by Ernst & Young pegs the drone market size at $886 million by 2021. That is a huge potential but for that the regulatory framework will have to be conducive and favourable.
Eight points to remember about operating drones in India
- Ensure that you get a Unique Identification Number (UIN) from DGCA for operating in controlled airspace (where the ATC services are active) and affix the same to your drone. You must also get an Unmanned Aircraft Operator Permit (UAOP), just in case it is required in your specific case.
- Each and every flight must obtain prior approval and permission via Digital Sky Platform which is available online on DGCA website online platform. Any drone flight without this approval is considered to be illegal.
- Current extant regulations only permit you to fly drones during daylight (i.e. after sunrise to before sunset). Get details from the DGCA of the actual timing implications of this rule. Any violation is treated seriously. Ensure that you fly your drone only in good weather conditions to enable easy flying and easier tracking.
- There is something called visual line of sight (VLOS) which defines the visual range of your drone. You must always be within the VLOS. Also when you fly drones you must be aware of airspace restrictions/ no drone zones and privacy restrictions.
- Make to keep the local police station informed about your drone activity to avoid hassles later on. Ensure that you provide transparent information to the police and to the DGCA, which is the regulating authority. Log flights and intimate on accidents.
- Check if your license is for a Nano Drone or a Micro Drone. You cannot fly a Nano drone above 50 feet from ground level or a Micro Drone above 200 feet.
- Always avoid flying drones near airports and heliports or even over groups of people at public events or at public places without prior permission. There are clear restrictions on flying drones over government facilities, military bases etc.
- In case you plan to fly drones in controlled airspace near airports ensure that you file the flight plan for AAI/ADC permission 24 hours before operation.
One can argue that the policy is too restrictive to encourage the development of drone facilities in India but in a sensitive business model in a crowded country like India, some additional caution is warranted. One needs to watch out for how this space shapes up.