A Bold New Beginning — India’s New Drone Rules

The drone community in India received a significant booster doze Thursday, Jul 15, when the Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) released an updated draft  — ‘The Drone Rules, 2021’ — for public consultation. As per a press release from PIB, India, the draft rules are “built on a premise of trust, self-certification, and non-intrusive monitoring”. Once approved and notified (with changes, if any) The Drone Rules, 2021 will replace existing ‘UAS Rules 2021’ that was released on 12 March 2021. The draft is open for comments from general public, drone aficionados and the industry till Aug 5, 2021.

India may have missed the bus on helicopters; but the drone lobby surely seems to have got its act together!

Less paper, more flying

The 15-page draft marks a refreshing departure from the labyrinthine rules, regulations and bureaucracy that has come to define MoCA and its constituents. For instance, the UAS Rules 2021 issued vide Gazette notification of Mar 12, 2021 drones-on for 148 pages. In an age where practically only birds fly without a portable electronic device (PED), the Operations Circular on Electronic Flight Bags (EFB) is 64 pages long. Conformity, usability and practicality of civil aviation rules and regulations in India has become an oxymoron of sorts. Most rules are simply cut-copy-pasted from developed countries with no sensitivity to Indian realities. A random search for UAS Rules 2021 on the Director General Civil Aviation (DGCA) website returned a PDF upload in Devanagari script.

Against this setting, the latest draft signed and steered by former Partner in KPMG turned lateral-inductee Joint Secretary in MoCA, Amber Dubey, heralds much hope and enthusiasm. It has been received warmly in Indian drone circles as a definitive step in the right direction.

The drone community is still grappling with evolutionary challenges in India. To make matters worse, drones were recently in the news for reasons that would have thrown a wet blanket over any ‘opening’ of the skies.

A rather quick turnaround

The need for rehashing the UAS Rules 2021 issued just four months ago after lengthy consultations with stakeholders reflects the drone community’s deep disappointment with existing rules that threatened to drown the drones with a sinker of over-regulation (they did this successfully to helicopters). The drone community is still grappling with evolutionary challenges in India. To make matters worse, drones were recently in the news for reasons that would have thrown a wet blanket over any ‘opening’ of the skies. That the government still decided to go ahead with a bold revision in wake of the June 27 drone-IED attacks on the technical area of IAF’s Air Force Station Jammu is notable. One hopes this is not a case of ministries (MoCA and MoD) working in silos. If not, it reflects a firm determination to foster growth of drones in India even as security forces grapple with ways and means to deal with the asymmetric threat posed by rogue drones in the hands of extremists and non-state actors.

Many approvals nixed

Many mandatory approvals in the UAS Rules 2021 are proposed to be nixed in the latest draft. These include approvals such as unique authorisation number, unique prototype identification number, certificate of conformance, certificate of maintenance, import clearance, acceptance of existing drones, operator permit, authorisation of R&D organisation, student remote pilot licence, remote pilot instructor authorisation, drone port authorisation etc. The number of forms required to operate drones have been reduced from 25 to 6. Licence fee has been delinked from drone size and made affordable for all. For example, issuance of airworthiness certificate or renewal of remote pilot licence has been pegged at Rs. 100 — about a litre of petrol at current prices!

Digital Sky Platform key to success

Experts this author spoke to feel that the success of these initiatives will depend in large part on ‘Digital Sky’ platform — a single-window online system where most permissions to own and operate drones will be self-generated. Bureaucratic red tape and ‘rubber stamp culture’ has been the bane of Indian aviation for decades. Paper trails with needless human intervention lends itself to ‘discretionary powers’ and opens doors for corruption. It is encouraging to see the shift to paperless approval. The Digital Sky homepage nested in DGCA website is refreshingly user-friendly and content-rich, striking a sharp contrast with host (DGCA) and its pilot licensing quicksand for manned aircraft. However, the Digital Sky initiative is a work in progress and is yet to be operationalised. The draft notes that safety features like ‘No permission – no takeoff’ (NPNT), real-time tracking beacon, geo-fencing etc. will be notified in future. Operators will be given a six-month lead time for compliance.

The success of new drone rules will depend in large part on ‘Digital Sky’ platform — a single-window online system where most permissions to own and operate drones will be self-generated.

Once Digital Sky is fully operational, an interactive airspace map with green, yellow and red zones will be available on the platform, allowing drone operators to plan their flights within safe corridors. As per the new rules, no flight permission is required upto 400 feet in green zones and upto 200 feet in the area between 8 to 12 km from an airport perimeter. The Yellow zone has been reduced from 45 km to 12 km from airport perimeter. This would fall just outside the ‘sterile zone’ or traffic pattern on a VFR field.

A Searcher UAV soars in the Indian skies (Picture courtesy Sanjay Simha; image used with permission)

Licensing & airworthiness

The draft rules proposes to do away with requirement for remote pilot licence for micro drones (for non-commercial use) and nano drones, and for R&D organisations. No security clearance is required before any registration or licence issuance. The system will work on a unique identification number (UIN) that can be obtained from the digital sky platform after submitting requisite details. As of Jul 19, 2021, 42 individuals have been issued UIN for their drones in the medium, small and micro categories on the digital sky webpage (R&D entities are exempted from this requirement). Issuance of Certificate of Airworthiness has been delegated to Quality Council of India and certification entities authorised by it. There is no restriction on drone operations by foreign-owned companies registered in India. Coverage of drones has been increased from 300 kg to 500 kg. This will cover drone taxis, thereby incentivising drone deliveries and dedicated drone corridors for e-commerce.

Many tasks hithertofore undertaken by light helicopters (e.g: pipeline survey, aerial photography, payload delivery, etc) may well slip into the hands of drone entrepreneurs.

Training

As per the new rules, all drone training and testing will be carried out by a DGCA-authorised drone school. DGCA will prescribe training requirements, oversee drone schools and provide pilot licences online. As on date, eight such flying training organisations in Maharashtra, Telangana, UP and Jharkhand are listed on the Digital Sky page of DGCA website. One hopes many more will mushroom given the simplified process of owning and operating a drone in India. The PIB press release notes that “Standard operating procedures (SOP) and training procedure manuals (TPM) will be prescribed by DGCA on the digital sky platform for self-monitoring by users. No approvals are required unless there is a significant departure from the prescribed procedures”.

Only an aviation professional who has navigated the minefield of training and licensing in India will recognise the full import of bold reforms nested in the draft drone rules 2021. Words like “trust, self-certification, and non-intrusive monitoring” don’t sit easily on our system.

A bold new beginning! Drone on!

The finalised Drone Rules 2021 will come into force on the date of its publication in the Official Gazette of India. Comments are welcome till Aug 5, 2021.

It may well be one of those rare transformational moments in Indian civil aviation.

If you are between 18 to 65 years of age, have passed class X or equivalent from a recognised board, have completed the training prescribed by DGCA for applicable class of remote pilot licence from an authorised remote pilot training organisation, you are good to go!

Polite request: Please lookout for helicopters! We are still stuck in the 20th century, have no credible lobby, no ADS(B), and are still perceived as nuisance in India!

It may well be one of those rare transformational moments in Indian civil aviation. Once the draft Drone Rules 2021 is fine-tuned, notified, & Digital Sky is up and running, whatever’s holding you on ground surely can’t be bureaucracy.


An edited version of this story was first published by The Quint as an opinion piece. You can access it here.

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©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2021. All rights reserved. I can be reached at realkaypius@gmail.com or on my Twitter handle @realkaypius. Views are personal. Cover photo courtesy Sanjay Simha; image used with permission.

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