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View: Realising the economic value drones bring, India now has to play catch-up

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On Thursday, the civil aviation ministry released the draft of the national drone policy. The rules, after public inputs close on August 5, are supposed to replace the Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) Rules, 2021, that became operational in March. The draft suggests considerable reduction in red tape to get a go-ahead for operating drones — from 25 forms to be filled to five, no security clearance required before registration or licence, and no curbs for foreign companies registered in India, with fees for drone usage brought down sharply.

This is welcome. Even as the recent attacks on Jammu airbase on June 27 brought the threats of drone technology to public domain, GoI has ensured that the baby is not thrown out with the bathwater. This is not the first time that the technology has faced flak for being abused.

Many quarters have since suggested stricter rules for drone usage. These substantiate fears that have concerned lawmakers. While the fear is not unfounded, it is misdirected. Rewind to 2014. Not acknowledging the benefits and fearing nefarious use — as opposed to being prepared for it — drones faced a policy-level ban rather than regulation. This ban was total, until the first regulatory attempt in 2018. Meanwhile, without an effective implementation mechanism, the ban order failed to deter much of illegal private import and drone misuse. The estimated number of illegal drones imported and operating in India ranged between 50,000 and 6 lakh in 2019.

This was before the civil aviation ministry’s scheme to register drones. The earlier ban had clearly deterred legitimate and gainful applications of drones by the law-abiding industry. The lack of regulatory clarity that followed discouraged legit drone adoption in India. The resultant demand vacuum stifled investments and local innovation in the technology. The latest change of heart hopes to check this regression. Realising the economic value drones bring, India now has to play catch-up. It has taken seven years to bring ourselves to a stage where we can operate drones and initiate the virtuous demand cycle feeding into Aatmanirbhar Bharat initiatives.

The market potential for drones and counter-drone systems is estimated to be about Rs 3 lakh crore by 2030. Its multiplier effect on economic benefits would be much higher. Having acknowledged that drones are merely a technology that can be used or misused, India’s response to prevent its misuse can be summed up in one word: counterdrone. But the spirit behind that response needs to be ‘countering the intent’, something the draft rules takes on board. Counter-drone systems are complex. Deploying them requires an approach that includes understanding the nature of asset to be protected, its threat perception, along with an analysis of ‘technology fitment’.

India, with its diverse assets, like long land borders, numerous strategic and national importance assets (airports, seaports, dams, nuclear installations, refineries, etc), certainly has a lot to protect. There is no ‘one size fits all’ protective mechanism. Moreover, counter-drone technology is evolving globally. So, deploying counter-drone systems requires a systematic and concerted approach. While the industry resolves the ‘fitment’ puzzle, yet another piece of the puzzle that needs solving is clarity on regulatory aspects of these systems, something the draft proposes to make law.

The three key technology components of counter-drone systems — detection, identification and interdiction — individually fall under multiple regulatory domains. Combining all three into a single system is a tough regulatory challenge. In the recent past, multiple security establishments have proposed specifications of counter-drone systems for their country-wide deployment.

A two-tier approach could help this conundrum be resolved by providing the optimum oversight needed by regulators, while providing options to users to choose the system that works best for their needs. One, a central framework that enables the interfacing requirements of counter-drone systems with regulating entities. Boundaries need to be established here. Second, specialised agencies that have domain expertise in protecting assets under their watch can detail their requirements and choose technology that best fits their need. This will ensure a balance of compliance without forgoing technology choices.

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