The Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) recently released draft UAS Rules 2020 with the aim of further regulating the emerging drone sector. These draft rules were released for public comment in the backdrop of drones being widely utilised by various state governments and central agencies to fight the coronavirus pandemic. Drones were also deployed by government organizations in fighting the threat of locusts. In doing so, India became the first nation to use drones against the locust plague. This feat was subsequently lauded by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations.
It is clearly time for policymakers to focus on benefits this technology can bring, and not just potential dangers. Here are some ways we can enable the benefits, while maintaining security and public safety.
Emergency services should be exempted from ‘No Permission – No Take-off’
Despite successful operations carried out by drones in the fight against the pandemic and the locust plague, under the current draft rules, emergency services have not been exempted from the No Permission – No Take-off framework. The failure to exempt emergency services other than NTRO, ARC and Central Intelligence Agencies from NPNT is a bit surprising. It is understood that the regulations are framed keeping in mind the threat drones could potentially pose, but the question of security should not arise for emergency services, as the bodies using drones for operations are government agencies.
The NPNT framework is very restrictive in nature. For deploying drones, emergency services such as those of the NDMA, police and fire services need to seek permission at least 24 hours in advance. Given the urgency and nature of work undertaken by these government organizations, seeking prior permission is simply unrealistic. Emergency services need to be given the freedom to use drones in accordance with sound judgment.
Provide drone operators with options rather than more restrictions
The NPNT framework also prevents the services from having access to the best technologies globally available. For emergency service teams to rise to the occasion and provide the most capable and efficient services, they need to choose drones that meet their mission critical needs. Presently, more advanced drone technology cannot be imported as these advanced drones are not compatible with the NPNT framework. While it is important to develop India’s homegrown drone ecosystem, it is also crucial for emergency services to gain access to drones best suited to their operational requirements and not be restricted by the NPNT framework.
Adopt a globally accepted system rather than reinvent the wheel
As an alternative to NPNT system, governments around the world have started to embrace remote identification technology (Remote ID) to regulate airspace. This technology, if adopted, will ensure security by providing the government the opportunity to track drones in airspace like an Airport Surveillance Radar system. Another big advantage of Remote ID technology is that it allows for easier assimilation of existing drones in the market. Most drones available today can be retrofitted for Remote ID via a free firmware update.
Remote ID would aid both regulators and law enforcement agencies in keeping track of all non-compliant operators, thereby strengthening the regulatory mechanisms of the country. Remote ID also encourages drone operators to fly responsibly, follow rules and be more accountable. Additionally, Remote ID could enable more advanced emergency operations beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS,) such as search and rescue missions, delivering medical supplies to remote locations and conducting large scale inspections, thereby making drones a more viable tool for many industries.
Building a supportive environment for commercial applications
The future of drone usage lies in building a proper environment for use of drones in commercial applications – like delivery in cities and in remote areas. If we do not open up drone usage for commercial applications, we are restricting the use of this technology to a limited sphere. Once commercial usage is allowed, a much more robust monitoring mechanism has to be in place. A Remote ID system would be better suited to create a proper environment for commercial use. Moreover, being in line with international standards will give us the benefit of producing internationally accepted drones, thereby opening up a possibility of Indian manufactured drones to compete in international bids.
Small recreational consumer drones should not be subject to harsh regulations
Small recreational drones – or nano drones as the industry classifies it – are among the most popular drone categories in the country. Globally, it is believed that the nano drones pose very little threat to aviation safety or security. Rather, these drones provide a safe and cost-effective means for those who wish to use drones for recreational or light commercial purposes such as flying a toy drone in a park or using it for wedding photography.
In India, nano drones constitute a significant share of the market. In the draft rules, the nano segment of drones has been harshly subjected to additional proposed regulations. This would have an adverse effect on different users, businesses, and organizations across the country. Not only will the manufacturers of such drones be severely impacted, hampering the growth of this segment, but research institutions and small businesses who rely on drone technology for their operations will also be impacted.
To facilitate the growth of the domestic nano drone industry, while ensuring it is well regulated, regulators need to consider weight-based parameters and risk-assessments seen in other developed nations like the United States, United Kingdom, and Singapore.
While drones, or any technology, can be dangerous if used by people with the wrong intentions, the tremendous potential of drones should not be discounted. For Indian government agencies, organizations, and businesses to take advantage of drone technology, we must take an unbiased, scientific approach and regulate it rather than fear it. As evident in many countries around the world, drone technology is not only beneficial for the growth of the economy, but is also becoming a critical tool for emergency services, infrastructure projects, wedding photographers and many other industries. Instead of enforcing harsh regulations and minimising the use of drones, let us understand and embrace this technology. So that we can fully explore what it can do for us, for our communities, and for the country.
(The author is former Director General CRPF, former Additional Director of NIA and former Odisha DGP)