Drones in India: Regulated in the streets, Wild West in the sheets

There are rules in place for using unmanned aerial vehicles but they aren’t enforced beyond the bare minimum.

ByVinay Aravind
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Drones in India: Regulated in the streets, Wild West in the sheets
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If you have attended a certain kind of fancy wedding in India in recent years, an inescapable part of the soundtrack (apart from the music and other traditional trappings) is the keen buzzing and strong draught from a drone camera flying overhead. From shooting dramatic footage of people attending weddings to launching hellfire missiles to murder a group of civilians attending one, unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, have entered our consciousness in various different ways in recent times.

Just over the last month I’ve seen drones pop up in the newspaper on multiple occasions, from high-intensity stories like the attack on an air force station in Jammu and the drone spotted over the Indian High Commission in Islamabad to more mundane civic matters like the Greater Chennai Corporation using them to combat the mosquito menace, and lofty claims from the Indian Council of Medical Research about using them for vaccine delivery.

Despite the ubiquity of drones, the public, outside of those involved in their operation, has very little knowledge about them and even less knowledge about the various rules and regulations that govern their operations. In spite of being a wedding photographer, I realised I didn’t have much of a clue myself, which is when I started digging into this topic and speaking to some people and what I discovered was a fascinating web of extensive, intricate regulations, more honoured in the breach than in the observance.

The saga of drone regulation in India has lurched from extreme to extreme over the past few years, while having little commensurate impact on the actual activities, on the ground. Up till 2014 drone usage was practically a free-for-all. There were no express laws governing them and drones started to find popularity among casual photography/videography enthusiasts and wedding photographers. In October 2014, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation suddenly imposed a blanket ban on civilian drone operations, pending notification of regulations governing their use.

This had very little impact on the ground, and drones continued to be used and sold all over the country, with the post 2014 period witnessing a veritable boom in India, especially in the wedding industry, all while technically being illegal.

Drones finally became “legal” again in December 2018 when the DGCA’s National Drone Policy came into effect. This categorised drones into nano, micro, small, medium and large, and imposed graded restrictions on their activity, depending on their size. It also imposed a raft of compliance requirements for operating all but the nano category of drone, including getting an operator’s licence, registering the drone itself, logging the flight plan for each flight 24 hours in advance and seeking clearance.

It also imposed restrictions on the drone manufacturers, to integrate geo-fencing to avoid designated no-fly zones, including airports and sensitive areas, and NPNT (no permission no take off) restrictions such that the drone can’t physically take off if the flight plan is not approved by the designated authority.

As you can imagine, the compliance with these regulations was negligible. Drones that are non-compliant with these regulations continue to be sold. In fact, the much-touted NPNT system has not been implemented in the most popular drones that are being used in the country right now. The one element of the rules that was somewhat functional is the ability to register with the DGCA a drone that you purchase. From conversations with those familiar with drone usage, but who did not wish to be named, I understand that apart from registering the drone and getting a unique identity number, or UIN, there’s little else of the 2018 policy that has been followed in practice.

Add to this the poorly functional Digital Sky platform, which drone operators are supposed to use to log flight plans and seek permission and the like, and the rules have had very little impact on actual drone operation.

An alternate jugaad regulatory system has instead come up in its place, where drone operators take permission from the local police, to operate their drones, and the local police, being not very well versed in the intricacies of the 2018 Policy, evaluate these requests according to their judgment, to grant permission. It’s not hard to imagine that, in keeping with the great Indian tradition of it being easier to obtain forgiveness than permission, there must be a good amount of drone operation that dispenses with this jugaad authorisation, as well.

As far as drone operator licences are concerned, apart from perhaps a small number of high-profile professionals, such as those involved in the film industry, many drone users have not bothered to get them. The bureaucracy involved in the process is forbidding, to say the least, and while one way to avoid them is to sign up for a drone pilot course, where they will help you obtain the licence, these courses cost upwards of Rs 30,000 and in an environment of lax monitoring and poor local knowledge among law enforcement, there’s no real incentive to spend that kind of money.

Which brings us to the latest set of rules governing drones, that came out a few months ago, in March 2021. Typical to the policy making style of the union government, instead of evaluating the problems and failures of the 2018 policy, and tweaking them in consultation with the stakeholders, they decided that increasing the level of bureaucracy and complexity of compliances is the solution to all ills.

In addition to the rules under the 2018 policy, the 2021 rules incorporate new compliances for pilots, operators, manufacturers or importers, training organisations and research and development organisations, without mentioning any timelines for obtaining these authorisations and licences. The 2021 rules also stipulate requirements for nano drones, including satellite-based navigation, geo-fencing and autonomous return-to-home, which are somewhat extravagant considering the limited capabilities and utility of the machines, and would make them considerably more expensive and inaccessible.

As with the 2018 policy, the outlook for compliance with the 2021 rules does not look very positive. Geofencing has been incorporated in the more popular drone models above the nano category, but neither the NPNT system nor the regime governing the licensing of drone operators looks to be any more practicable to enforce or implement, under the new rules. The newly introduced stipulations regarding licensing requirements for manufacturers and importers etc could succeed if they are implemented efficiently, but it’s difficult to be optimistic about this, based on the DGCA’s past record.

All things considered, the drone situation in India is likely to continue much as it has over the past few years, with the usage and deployment of the machines continuing cheerfully, with little to no regard to compliances, licences and permissions, apart from a bare minimum.

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