Legal framework for drones in India

Synopsis

Drones are constantly evolving the way we operate. They have opened up a vast arena of possibilities through their operation in diversified industries. It is not just a popular method to take panoramic videos, but are also employed for quick deliveries, providing medical care in remote areas, search & rescue, inspections, disaster response, humanitarian relief efforts, and more.

Given that, unmanned aircrafts are a future of aviation, there is a definite need for consolidated regulations on a global level, to facilitate the integration of manned-unmanned aircrafts operations. This Article hence critically analyses the regulatory framework for drone operations in India.

WHAT ARE DRONES?

A drone is an unmanned or unscrewed aerial vehicle, originally employed for missions that are too "dull, dirty or dangerous" for humans.

Unmanned Aircraft System has three subsets, a) Remotely Piloted Aircraft System b) Autonomous Aircraft System and c) Model Aircraft System.

By virtue of being an aircraft which operates with less or no human intervention or a human pilot aboard, its application has been expanding to diversified fields like scientific, recreational, agricultural along with, it is used for aerial photography, product deliveries, surveillance, infrastructure inspections, drone racing, and many others.

With an amalgamation of emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, cameras, robot arms, etc., drones have the capability to do a lot more. They can make inspections and surveillance mechanisms cost-effective and faster, while harvesting procedures can become quicker and efficient. With the advent of technology, it is supremely necessary and also profitable for industries to embrace innovation and experiment, to expand and magnify their businesses.

Owing to its heterogeneous application, drones are available in different kinds of price ranges. A toy drone can have a price range from Rs 1400 to Rs 18,000. Camera drones usually cost a minimum of Rs. 23,000 while other hi-tech drones may even be priced between Rs. 40,000 to 3,00,000.

HOW ARE DRONE OPERATIONS REGULATED IN INDIA?

Since the international body for civil aviation, International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) has not formulated any standards for aircraft system operations, many nations have their own interim policies and rules to regulate Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) operations. The United States of America, the United Kingdom, France, Australia, and numerous other nations had domestic RPAS regulations already in place when India imposed a ban on the operation of civil drones. Most of these countries were conducting research, development, and marketing activities well before they formally published their RPAS regulations.

A sudden incident came to light in 2014, when a Mumbai - based pizza restaurant employed an unmanned vehicle to deliver pizzas in its vicinity, compelling India to impose a blanket banon the use of drones, impacting this emerging industry in the country.

At that time, India also apprehended terrorist attacks by way of drones and the problem of their collision with piloted aircraft. India also lacked research and development mechanisms carried out by other countries.

CIVIL AVIATION REQUIREMENTS, 2018

Introduction:

A regulatory body of India, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) integrated a regulatory policy for the operation of Remotely Piloted Aircraft System(RPAS) on August 27, 2018, as the ban of 2014 seemed to be impractical in the years following it, due to large availability of imported drones from China which largely impacted the Indian markets. The increase in demand for civil drones and its unregulated operations also necessitated the formulation of this policy.

The policy was a hard but significant step, even though it was difficult to implement due to technological challenges and conflicts of interest. It provides the legitimacy to civil RPAS operations in India, which were much needed after the 2014 ban.

The policy has been issued by way of Civil Aviation Requirements (CAR), Section 3 – Air Transport Series X, Part I, Issue I (also known as the Drone Regulations 1.0), in accordance with Rule 15A and Rule 133A of the Airport Rules, 1937 and is applicable on Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS). This term has been defined the ICAO in its rules of Air as "An unmanned aircraft which is piloted from a remote pilot station, which expected to be integrated into the air traffic management system equally as manned aircraft and real-time piloting control is provided by a licensed remote pilot."

Task Force:

A 13-member drone task-force was constituted by the Ministry of Civil Aviation to ascertain the potential commercial uses of Remotely Piloted Aircrafts (RPA) and develop the regulatory framework for the operation of drones for civil use in India. The task force consisted of various ministerial persons, R&D professionals, scholars who resolved critical deficiencies in the drafts of the CAR and identified problems like absence of research programs, certification and registration procedures, impact on other industries, development of air traffic control systems among many others.

Considering the recommendations of the drone task force, various initiatives have been undertaken in 2019 and 2020, by the Ministry of Civil Aviation, concentrating on capacity building of the drone ecosystem, one of which was the Drone Ecosystem Policy Roadmap published on January 15, 2019.

Classification of RPA:

The policy classifies RPA on the basis of their Maximum Take-off Weight(MTOW) as

1.

Nano:

Less than or equal to 250 grams.

2.

Micro:

Greater than 250 grams and less than or equal to 2 kg.

3.

Small:

Greater than 2 kg and less than or equal to 25 kg.

4.

Medium:

Greater than 25 kg and less than or equal to 150 kg.

5.

Large:

Greater than 150 kg.

Unique Identification Number(UIN):

  1. According to the CAR, 2018, every owner of RPA requires a Unique Identification Number(UIN) issued by the DGCA through a Digital Sky platform.
  2. The UIN can be granted for an RPA when it is wholly owned by a citizen of India, the Central Government or a State Government or any companies controlled by them, any other body corporate or company fulfilling conditions under Para 6.1(c) of the CAR. The owner must fulfillall other conditions for acquiring UIN as mentioned under Para 6.2 of the CAR.
  3. The UIN number has to be engraved on the fire-resistant plate of the drone and affixed on the RPA, for it to be accessible upon close visual inspection.
  4. The owner is required to pay Rs. 10000/- as fees for obtaining the UIN.
  5. RPA falling under the Nano category intended to fly up to 50 feet for commercial, recreational, or R&D purposes, or RPA owned by NTRO, ARC, and Central Intelligence Agencies, are exempted from obtaining UIN.

Unmanned Aircraft Operator Permit(UAOP):

  1. UAOP is issued to all civil RPA operators, who must be at least 18 years of age and have undergone training(Para 9, CAR). Other documents under Para 7.3 of CAR must be submitted by the RPA operators applying for UAOP. This permit resembles a driving license issued to a driver.
  2. The RPA operators are required to apply on the digital sky platform and pay a fee of Rs. 25,000/- for obtaining a UAOP, which shall be valid for 5 years.
  3. A UAOP can be renewed after fresh scrutiny, by paying a requisite fee of Rs. 10,000/- on the Digital Sky Platform.
  4. RPA falling under the Nano and Micro category intended to fly up to 50 feet and 200 feet respectively in uncontrolled premises, for commercial, recreational or R&D purposes, or RPA owned by NTRO, ARC, and Central Intelligence Agencies, are exempted from obtaining the UAOP.

Digital Sky Platform:

  1. The Digital Sky Platformis one of a kind initiative by the Indian Government for Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM). It is a digital platform developed by the DGCA for the approvals of UIN, UAOP applications, and other permissions and registrations required to regulate RPAS operations in India.
  2. The Digital Sky Platform does not offer single-window clearances. Resultantly, the RPA operator has to obtain clearances from various agencies of the Central Government. It also mandates the RPA operator to file the flight plan at least 24 hoursbefore operations.
  3. The airspace has been bifurcated into three broad zones:
  • Red implies "no-fly zone" and includes airspace near international borders, near airports and other strategic locations.
  • Yellow means "restricted zone" which includes airspaces that require an Air Defence Clearance/ Flight Information Centre (FIC) number from Air Traffic Control.
  • Green is an "unrestricted zone".

'No Permission- No Takeoff' Policy:

  1. In order to preserve day to day operations of RPA, an online system of 'No Permission- No Takeoff' (NPNT) has been developed under the CAR. Valid permissions from concerned authorities have to be obtained through the Digital Sky Platform, by entering the UIN of the RPA and UAOP number of the operator.
  2. Similar to a no-objection certificate, NPNT empowers the government to view drones in the vicinity and ensure air traffic control.
  3. The RPA manufacturers of all categories except nano, in India and outside, are mandated to provide a Certificate of Compliance along with NPNT compliance to DGCA, specified in DGCA RPAS Guidance Manual.

Operating Restrictions :

The CAR contains a slew of operating restrictions under its Para 13.1, wherein it provides that no RPA shall be flown:

  1. Within a distance of 5 km from the perimeter of airports at  all metropolitan cities and Bengaluru and Hyderabad;
  2. Within a distance of 3 km from the perimeter of any civil, private or defence airports, other than those mentioned in Para 13.1(a);
  3. Within permanent or temporary Prohibited, Restricted, and Danger areas.
  4. Within 25km from international borders which includes Line of Control (LoC), Line of Actual Control (LAC) and Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL);
  5. Beyond 500 m (horizontal) into the sea from the coastline, provided the location of the ground station is on a fixed platform over land;
  6. Within 3 km from the perimeter of military installations/ facilities/ where military activities/ exercises are being carried out unless clearance is obtained from the local military installation/facility;
  7. Within 5 km radius from Vijay Chowk in Delhi, subject to any additional restrictions imposed by local law enforcement agencies in view of the security.
  8. Within 2 km from the perimeter of strategic locations/ vital installations notified by Ministry of Home Affairs unless clearance is obtained from MHA;
  9. Within 3 km from the radius of State Secretariat Complex in State Capitals;
  10. From a mobile platform such as a moving vehicle, ship or aircraft;
  11. Over eco-sensitive zones around National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries notified by Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change without prior permission. 

Other features and requirements under CAR:

  1. The RPA operator has to comply with the safety requirements under Para 8 of the CAR, maintenance requirements under Para 10 of the CAR, and equipment requirements under Para 11 of the CAR.
  2. The CAR provides for various features such as one-time registration of RPA, their owners, pilots and also allows individual Indian citizens, companies, or registered bodies to fly RPA in India.
  3. All RPA operations, regardless of the category are restricted to the day, within Visual Line of Sight (VLOS) and are subject to conditions given in Para 12.3.
  4. Para 15 of the CAR provides for minimum standards for the manufacturing of RPA in India and Abroad. 
  5. It is contained under Para 16 of the CAR that the UIN or UAOP does not grant the RPA operator any right that may exist, against the owner or resident of land, where the RPA operations are conducted. Also, it does not prejudice the rights and remedies which a person may have in respect of any injury to persons or damage to property caused directly or indirectly by the RPA.

CRITICAL ANALYSIS

Considering that the current number of drones in India stands at roughly 60,000 and is anticipated to double in the following years, it is unfortunate that none of them support the NPNT system provided under CAR. According to information submitted by Economic Times about a study done by UnearthInsight, there are about 100 drone-startups in India while the same in the United States is 681 and China is 129.

India owns an opportunity to grow the domestic drone hardware market and manufacture drones with NPNT compatibility to give effect to the Drone Regulations since most international drone manufacturers that import to India do not support the NPNT system.

It is not deniable that India has witnessed numerous unauthorized drone activities over the years which requires emergency procedures to tackle. Comprehensive guidelines must be framed by the regulators to confront challenges such as safety, security, privacy, transparency, flexibility, and scalability of the RPA, especially those flying on low elevations. Moreover, mechanisms are necessary to monitor the manner of collection, use, and storage of data by the RPAS and to ensure proper compliance of the norms by the RPA operators.

Nevertheless, the stipulation of the timelines for the issue of UIN in 2 days and UAOP in seven days which ensures accountability among the concerned issuing authorities, is an advancing measure. It is important to realize that the industry is nascent and there are meant to be gaps in the implementation of the regulations. Bearing in mind, the economic liability, national security, and threat to life and property by such technology, the regulations for these operations become supremely essential.

An adequate and sincere effort is required by the Government to conduct research and development in this arena and consequently, devise an effective set of rules.

CONCLUSION:

The drone industry is booming at a never seen before the pace of over 40% per year making it complicated for policymakers to match the rate at which drones are reaching people. Even though a few nations have established clear and comprehensive laws relating to drones, others are still struggling to integrate distinctive and appropriate drone laws to regulate this rapidly changing industry.

The Drone Regulation 1.0 or the CAR is a small but significant step towards enabling the operation of drones for commercial use. However, a comprehensive and robust regulatory framework is the need of the hour that emphasizes on the importance of promoting research and development, domestic drone manufacturing by Indian companies and encourages foreign companies to collaborate with Indian entities to set up design and manufacturing facilities in India in such a way that it makes India a manufacturing hub and not an assembly point.

 

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