According to the Drone Rules, 2021 (‘Drone Rules’ or ‘Rules’), “drone” or “unmanned aircraft system” (“UAS”), means an aircraft that can operate autonomously or can be operated remotely without a pilot on board. For the longest time the use of drones was limited to the context of warfare, but it is rapidly expanding to commercial and civil government applications like scientific, recreational, agricultural, product delivery, infrastructure inspections, policing and surveillance, aerial photography, and more. In the wake of the pandemic, the need for drone technology has exacerbated as drones have provided unique solutions to challenges which were unforeseeable. From delivery of vaccine to remote locations, maintenance of lockdown restrictions to tracking the spread of the virus, drones have played a crucial role. Delivery apps like Zomato, Swiggy, and Dunzo have all obtained approvals for delivery testing via drones.
This sudden boom has prompted the government to formulate new rules and regulations to govern the civilian use of drones in India in the form of the Drone Rules, 2021 The Drone Rules aim to simplify the regulation of owning, possessing, operating, transferring or maintaining of drones as a relief measure from the highly stringent Unmanned Aircraft System Rules, 2021 (‘UAS Rules’). There were over 20 different approvals required to be taken under the UAS Rules. This also meant a higher quantum of fees to ascertain the approvals, which has been significantly reduced under the Drone Rules. The Rules mandate certain requirements like obtaining type certificate, registering on the Digital Sky Platform (defined below), different guidelines for different zones, procedure for obtaining a remote pilot license, etc. Below are some of the key provisions from the Drone Rules.
Drones have been classified into the following category by weight:
Nano UAS: Less than or equal to 250 grams;
Micro UAS: Greater than 250 grams and less than or equal to 2 kg;
Small UAS: Greater than 2 kg and less than or equal to 25 kg;
Medium UAS: Greater than 25 kg and less than or equal to 150 kg; and
Large UAS: Greater than 150 kg.
This classification of drones has important consequences since it will govern the extent of regulatory compliance and permissions required for use. For instance the nano drones are exempt from having to obtain a type certificate and a remote pilot license. Therefore drones being used for recreational purposes (like photography or videography) only need to worry about obtaining a unique identification number and the geographical area they’re flying in.
To operate drones, an operator is required to obtain a type certificate from the Director General of Civil Aviation appointed under the Aircraft Act, 1934 (“Director General”) certifying that it meets the requirements specified under the Rules (“Type Certificate”). The drones need to comply with certain mandatory safety features, which will be notified by the Central Government from time to time.
These requirements include obtaining third-party insurance (for all categories besides the nano drones), unique identification number, and remote pilot license. These will also include mandatory installation of ‘No Permission-No Takeoff’ hardware and firmware, real time tracking, etc.
Digital Sky Platform
The Digital Sky Platform (‘DSP’) has been established to provide an all-encompassing online gateway for all necessary permission and information for those operating an UAS. The platform is meant to be a user friendly single window system wherein majority of the permissions required would be self-generated in order to limit human intervention.
The Rules give power to the Central Government to segregate the entire airspace of India into 3 zones- Red, Yellow and Green zones. The airspace map can be updated on the DSP for drone operations from time to time to change the status of an area from one zone to another.
The three zones have been defined as follows:
Green Zone (Permissible Zone) – zones not classified as red or yellow up to a height of 120 meters;
Yellow Zone (Intermediate Zone) – areas with restricted access that require permission from the concerned air traffic control authority; and
Red Zone (No-Fly Zone) – areas specified by the central government within which operations shall be permitted only with the explicit permission of the Central Government.
The airspace map segregating the airspace of India into the aforementioned zones will be published on the Platform by the Central Government. The airspace map shall be programmatically accessible through a machine-readable application programming interface. It is mandatory for a drone pilot, to check the DSP before commencing a drone operation for any restriction applicable to drone operations in the intended area of operation. The Rules also create a self-reporting mechanism, which mandates the reporting of an accident involving the drones, within 48 hours to the Director General through the Platform.
Remote pilot license
The Rules restrict the operation of a drone by any person other than a holder of a valid Remote Pilot Licence enlisted on the DSP.This license is not required for a person operating a nano drone or operating a micro drone for non-commercial purposes.
In order to be eligible to obtain the Remote Pilot License, a person is required to be between the ages of 18 and 65, and should have passed class tenth or its equivalent examination from a recognised Board. The license can be obtained after completing the training at and passing the tests conducted by the authorised remote pilot training organisation for the particular categories and subcategories. The same shall have validity for a period of 10 years after which it can be renewed again.
Exemptions for Research, Development, and Testing
The Drone Rules also exempt drones operated for any research and development under the control of the Government, educational institutions, start-ups recognized by the Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade, and authorised testing entities from procuring a type certificate, unique identification number, prior permission, and remote pilot licence discussed above, provided they are functioning within the green zone.
India currently ranks as one of the highest importer of drones. With the implementation of the Drone Rules, this demand could fuel a boom in the drone market in India which has a market potential of $40billion by 2030 as per the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry.The Rules would encourage foreign investment and participation as foreign firms can now enter drone operations in India which was previously restricted.
The following sectors will be primarily positively affected-
The Rules serve as a major boost to the start-up sphere which is at the core of developing drone technology in India. Sectors ranging from e-commerce platforms and agriculture to manufacturing, mining and surveillance are all keen on working with drone-tech start-ups as they wish to streamline this advancement in technology into their operations.
The Union government recently approved a Production Linked Incentive scheme for drones and drone components with an allocation of Rs 120 crores spread over three financial years. Drone manufacturers will now receive incentives of up to 20 per cent on the value additions made by them. The scheme covers a plethora of drone and drone related components and also includes software and IT-related products. This would serve as a boost to the drone tech start-ups and accelerate their growth and development.
There have been several issues and challenges that come with the implementation of the Drone Rules.
For instance -
2. Privacy & Data Protection
The general concerns regarding surveillance and collection of data by drones or trespass over one’s property have not been adequately addressed under the said Rules. For instance, the use of drones for wedding photography has become common practice; however, such technology could also be easily misused to impinge on the rights of an individual. Drone devices could easily make use of internal microphones and be used for unauthorised surveillance as well.
In a time where protection of data and privacy has been discussed as the need of the hour, the Draft Rules have been silent on the matter. The ease of usage and acceptance of drone technology without safeguards could expand concerns of mass surveillance in the country thereby impeding an individual’s right to privacy.
3. Technological Infrastructure
The DSP aims to provide a one stop solution with regards to various services relating to the drone regime. However, it is pertinent to note that the smooth functioning of the platform would be critical to the success of the entire industry. The Platform has been operating since 2018 but is yet to get rid of its kinks which serve as an impediment to the growth and development of the drone regime in India.
The Drone Rules mark a significant shift in the perception regarding the growth and regulation of drones in India. The Rules strive to build India into a “Drone Hub” and maximize its potential in this industry not just domestically but across the globe. The Rules have eliminated numerous compliances and opted for a smoother mechanism to accelerate its ambitions. A strong foundation has been laid down by the Government but it is also important to build a robust legislative framework to eliminate any gaps in policy, coupled with data and privacy safeguards as well as a strong technological infrastructure to help the operations of drones maximize its potential while also addressing and safeguarding the interests of the public at large.