Stopping Skynet: Balancing India’s Drone Laws During the COVID-19 Pandemic

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The article sheds light on the present legal framework surrounding Drones in India. It discusses the applicability of laws to revitalize the economy by using drones during this pandemic. Further, it elucidates the need for future enhancements in drone regulations.

Introduction

Drones are also known as Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) and Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA). They are gaining unprecedented support from the Indian government. The support has particularly increased since the dawn of the coronavirus pandemic. An industry that was in shambles due to an outright ban on drones during the early 2010s is now to grow $885.7 million by 2021.

The pandemic provides a unique opportunity for drones. The situation calls to limit human interaction to reduce transmission of the virus. Drones are remotely piloted. Moreover, one can use drones for a plethora of purposes. The purposes include journalism, surveillance, and delivery of items.

We can observe the trend of increased drone usage in the Karnataka Government’s decision to deploy drones in Bengaluru district to sanitize the streets in most areas. Chennai start-up ‘Garuda Aerospace’ is combating COVID-19 by using drones to disinfect 26 cities. Further, drones are also being deployed in various parts of Mumbai to enforce lockdown.

Legal Viewpoint

Drones are basking in never before adoption rates by the Indian Authorities. But there is no Drone specific statute to regulate the entire drone aerospace.

Currently, this lacunae is being governed by the Drone Policies. These Office of the Director-General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) has promulgated these policies. Relevant sections of the Aircraft Act 1934 also regulate the same.

The DGCA has promulgated Drone Policy 1.0 and Drone Policy 2.0. They have removed a lot of cumbersome regulations on the usage of drones. But the Government can do much more to streamline the process.

Drone Policy 1.0

This policy classified drones based on their “all up weight” (AUW). AUW is the greatest weight of a drone including the battery and the payload. The classification is as follows:-

  1. Nano: Less than or equal to 250 grams
  2. Micro: Greater than 250g and less than or equal to 2 kg
  3. Small: Greater than 2kg 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

The classification helps authorities in differentiating from casual hobbyists and commercial users. It also helps in imposing different regulations for different tiers. But it is important to note that the drones owned by the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO), Aviation Research Centre (ARC), and Central Intelligence Agencies are exempt from restrictions placed under this scheme.

The Policy mandates for the registration of every drone in India those in Nano category. Further, the policy mandates the issuance of Unmanned Aircraft Operator Permit (UAOP) drone pilots except for Nano drones operating below 50 feet and Microdrones operating below 200 feet. Moreover, the drone pilot has to complete a training course before receiving a Remote Pilot License or an Unmanned Aerial Operator permit. He/she also needs to be at least 18 years of age and must have completed Grade 10 in the English medium.

The policy provides specifications for drones to be eligible to operate in India. It excludes the Nano category. Following are the specifications:-

  1. Return-To-Home (RTH) feature
  2. Anti-collision strobe light(s)
  3. Global Navigation Satellite System (GPS) enabled
  4. Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) and SIM/NPNT capable
  5. Flight controller with flight data logging capability
  6. Fire-resistant ID plate engraved with the Drone’s UIN

Digital Sky Platform

The government has designed a National Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) system. This UTM system is the Digital Sky Platform. It enables the operation of drones online. The platform issues permits and registrations of drones. “No Permission, No Take-off” (“NPNT”) regime is the basis followed by the platform. NPNT entails that unless permission to take-off is granted through the Digital Sky Platform, drones cannot enter into the airspace.

Moreover, the platform has bifurcated the Indian airspace into three zones:-

  1. Red Zone: They are “no-fly zones.” It includes airspace near international borders and airports. It further includes strategic areas like military installations and Vijay Chowk in Delhi.
  2. Yellow Zone: They are restricted zones that need permissions. Such as Air Defence Clearance for operating in controlled airspaces.
  3. Green Zone: They are unrestricted zones. They only need permission from the Digital Sky Platform.

Violations of the Policy

Acts done in contravention to the regulations laid down in the Drone Policy 1.0 can lead to:-

  • Suspension or cancellation of the UIN and/or the UAOP.
  • Government actions as per the Aircraft Act 1934, Aircraft Rules, or any legislative enactments.
  • Penalties are applicable as per Sections 287, 336, 337, and 338 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (IPC) or any other section of IPC as applicable.

Drone Policy 2.0

On January 15, 2019, the Ministry of Civil Aviation laid down the new policy to further augment Drone Policy 1.0. The new policy covered much of its drawbacks. The major features of the new policy are:-

  1. The scope of drone operations was enhanced. It allowed the drones to fly Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS). This was in contract to earlier policies that mandated drones to be in the pilot’s line of sight.
  2. It recommends establishing a Drone Corridor. It is distinct airspace, to separate commercial drone operations from military operations. The corridor will ensure that the civilian airspace where manned aircraft operate does not overlap with that of drones. The policy proposed that UAS Traffic Management (UTM) under the Digital Sky Platform regulates the Drone Corridor.
  3. The new policy removes the restriction on the deployment of Autonomous Drones. This is in contract to earlier policies that mandated human pilot. But autonomous drones can only be deployed if the manufacturer demonstrates the inclusion of privacy, security, and safety features in the software and intrinsic design of drones.
  4. The policy has introduced the concept of Digital Sky Service Providers (DSPs). DSPs are to provide services to drone operators over the Digital Sky Platform. They extend the functionality of the platform through Application Program Interfaces (APIs).
  5. The Indian government has now made permissible 100% FDI under the automatic route to provide capital to the Indian drone market and thus allow it to grow further.

Author’s Suggestions

The Indian government has made considerable progress in the Drone regulation sphere. But the same pale in comparison to the Chinese Government’s active promotion of the sector. The Chinese have seen visible success in this industry. This is due to their regulatory framework in successful start-ups such as Dà-Jiāng Innovations (DJI).

Some changes that can help improve the Indian regulatory framework of drones include:-

  1. The Parliament must enact a separate Drone specific Act. The Act should govern all aspects of the same. This will reduce the dependence on existing statutes and policies.
  2. The government should also be held accountable for drone policies. Agencies such as NTRO and the ARC should not capture unauthorized photographs or use facial recognition programs. This gains more importance in light of the Puttuswamy Judgement.
  3. The current policy mitigates against an overlap of drones and manned aircraft. But it does not envision a situation wherein the sheer number of drones lead to collisions. The Government should give Digital Sky Platform the capability to control drone traffic.
  4. The Digital Sky Platform must also be a platform that carter to the needs of foreign drone users. The current regime does not allow foreigners to have a UIN. The government can expand the platform to regulate the import and second-hand sale of drones.

Conclusion

The Indian government is sailing in the right direction when it comes to drone regulation. But the authorities must recognize that they are in uncharted areas. Lack of proper oversight may lead the nation down a dystopian path. The government has made the first right move, now it is up to us citizens to adhere to the regulations.

Nevertheless, with the right nudge and supervision from the government, we can soon see a drone industry that intertwines in our daily life. Be it areas such as delivering food, medicines, or other essential items. One can only imagine the rapid progression that the drone industry can undergo during the Coronavirus pandemic. With the aid of immediate executive policies by the DGCA, we can hope to see drones playing a vital part in our fight against the novel coronavirus.


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