Eye in the Sky: India’s New Drone Policy

If paparazzi armed with telephoto lenses have long been the scourge of the rich and famous; civilian drones are fast becoming the new menace to the ordinary man on the street. As with all new inventions, there are upsides and downsides. The commercial drone is no exception. But until robust safeguards have been introduced to protect personal privacy from prying eyes in the skies, the true benefits to society of unmanned aerial vehicles will remain unrealised.” – Alex Morritt, Impromptu Scribe.
The word ‘drone’ refers primarily to unmanned aircrafts or ships guided by remote control or onboard computers. India’s history of drones’ dates back to the 1990s, when the Indian Army acquired unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs from Israel, and the Indian Air Force and Navy followed suit. India first used military drones for photo reconnaissance along the Line of Control, during the 1999 Kargil war with Pakistan. Since Kargil, India has procured numerous Israeli military unmanned aircraft to loiter over military targets such as surveillance bases and radar stations. They have been designed to have a minimal radar signature, allowing them to perform stealth operations. Meanwhile, state-run Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and several other private Indian companies are making drones and developing UAV technologies.
In India, the use of all aerial vehicles, manned or unmanned, are governed by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA). Till the start of the 20th century, the development and use of drones occurred predominantly in the context of warfare by the military. Flying remote-controlled aircrafts has today significantly become a hobby, drones are, evolving into mainstream civilian purposes, akin to the internet and the global positioning system (GPS), which were initially used in the military. The use of drones is rapidly expanding to commercial and civil government applications like scientific, recreational, agricultural, product delivery, aerial photography, infrastructure inspections, drone racing, policing and surveillance, firefighting, and more. Drones are a common sight even in weddings across India. This has prompted the DGCA to formulate new rules and regulations to govern the civilian use of drones in India.
The Drone Rules, 2021 (“Drone Rules”) was issued by the Ministry of Civil Aviation on August 26, 2021 and do not apply to drones used by the naval, military or air forces of India. The Drone Rules have been issued in supersession of the earlier Unmanned Aircraft System Rules, 2021 (“UAS Rules”), which came into force on March 12, 2021. The Drone Rules were issued with the aim to be at par with global regulations and replace the UAS Rules that were believed to be rather restrictive owing to its labyrinthine processes and compliances. Prime Minister Narendra Modi states that the new Drone Rules shall “usher in a landmark moment for this sector in India. The rules are based on the premise of trust and self-certification. Approvals, compliance requirements and entry barriers have been significantly reduced.”
One of the most significant changes that the Drone Rules has brought about is the way people can now gain authorisation to fly drones. With recreational drone use on the rise, the most popular devices in this segment (due to their affordability and practicality) are likely to be classified as micro and nano drones for which users will no longer need a remote pilot’s license. The number of forms and amount of fees have been whittled down too – people now need to identify one of five forms and have to pay one of four categories of fees. The quantum of fees has been reduced to nominal levels and delinked with the size of the drone. The number of approval forms is reduced from 25 to 5 and the types of fees reduced from 72 to 4. The fee for a remote pilot license fee has been reduced from Rs 3000 (for large drones) to Rs 100 for all categories of drones and is valid for 10 years.
The Drone Rules provide for the better development of the Digital Sky platform, an initiative by the aviation ministry to provide a secure and scalable platform that supports drone technology frameworks such as NPNT (no permission, no take-off), designed to enable flight permissions digitally and managing unmanned aircraft operations and traffic efficiently. Digital Sky will be developed as a user-friendly, single-window system with minimal human interface, and with most permissions self-generated. The Digital Sky website will also have an interactive airspace map. The map will come with green, yellow and red zones. No permission is required for operating drones in green zones.
Another important aspect is that the coverage of drones under Drone Rules has been increased from 300kg to 500kg and will cover drone taxis. Drones under the Drone Rules have been categorised into 5 categories – Nano (less than 250 gms), Micro (250gms-2kgs), Small (2kg-25kg), Medium (25kg to 150kg) and Large (above 150kgs). Nano drones are exempted from obtaining Unique Identification Numbers and Unmanned Aircraft Operator Permit (UAOP). Also, no remote pilot licence is required for micro drones (for non-commercial use). The Drone Rules 2021 has also done away with the requirement of possessing a certificate of airworthiness, a unique identification number, prior permission and remote pilot licence for entities engaged in research and development (R&D) on drones.
The Drone Rules sets out a liberalized version of the UAS Rules and will exempt a drone operator from seeking security clearance before registering a drone or applying for a licence. The Drone Rules has also made it easier for companies wanting to deploy drones as well as those seeking to produce or import it. Previously, a foreign company or its subsidiary was not allowed to operate drones in India. Under the Drone Rules, foreign companies registered in India will be allowed to import and operate drones and their parts and will be regulated by the Directorate General of Foreign Trade.
With the new Drone Rules 2021, individuals as well as organisations in India are set to find it easier to own and operate drones, setting the stage for the wider use of drones in the country. This will be critical because drones have emerged as an essential part of future technologies. World over, the small flying machines are gathering data from hard-to-reach places, helping humans avoid treacherous locations, improving the speed of life-saving assistance and may someday even emerge as a mode of transport. However, with the liberalisation of the Drone Rules, one particular area of concern that persists is that drones are expected to capture vast amounts of data. This will inevitably include sensitive information, such as the location of an individual, their residence and nature of their large assets such as property and vehicle. Advances in technology mean operators can also potentially use drones for close surveillance, using, for instance, face recognition. At present, the regulatory mechanism proposed under the personal data protection law to prohibit the abuse of such data is yet to be put in place and will need to fast track the same soon.