India’s Liberalised Drone Rules 2021: Can The Govt Walk The Talk?

India’s Liberalised Drone Rules 2021: Can The Govt Walk The Talk?


By reducing the number of fees and number of forms from 72 to 4 and 25 to 5, The Drone Rules, 2021 has reduced the compliance burden from drone startups significantly

The Drone Rules, 2021 has been drafted on the premise of trust, self-certification and non-intrusive monitoring, says the ministry of civil aviation

Welcoming the move, startups founders however indicate a slew of reforms that are yet to be introduced and are essential to the industry

“Are you sure you want to commence the drone attack? There will be significant casualties,” EDITH (Tony Stark’s augmented reality security and defence system) asked Spiderman in “Far From Home.

Lately, India has been receiving a lot of threats in the form of drones. Several drones have been captured by the Indian Army that were carrying payloads in the form of weapons like AK 47 and other military-grade equipment.

Announced in March, this year, The UAS Rules, 2021 tried to address the security concerns by toughening the licenses and approval norms. However, this didn’t stop drone attacks in Jammu and Kashmir and other border areas of the country.

‘They (terrorists) ain’t waiting for a policy to legalise drone deliveries; we do,’ said a drone operator startup founder while welcoming the changes introduced in the latest The Drone Rules 2021.

Unlike the rules introduced in March, the new rules bring new hope to the industry and also showcase the ambitious plans of the government. The ministry of civil aviation also highlighted that India has the potential to be the global drone hub by 2030 while also supporting sectors such as – infrastructure, surveillance, agriculture, mining, emergency response, transportation, geo-spatial mapping, defence, and law enforcement etc.

And there is no doubt that this will also turn the drone segment into a creator of employment and economic growth due to their reach, versatility, and ease of use, especially in India’s remote and inaccessible areas.

Thanks to the critical feedback from NASSCOM and Drone Federation of India, The Drone Rules 2021 has now been made in supersession of the previous infamous UAS Rules, 2021 that had almost made the drone industry non-functional by putting a series of stopcocks over-testing, drones R&D, and required permissions from various government bodies before take off. Almost all the issues that were highlighted by Inc42, earlier, have now been resolved.

Reducing the number of forms required from 25 to 5, type of fees from 72 to 4, yellow zones from 45 Km to 12 km surrounding airport perimeter, and abolishing several approvals earlier required for R&D and prototype drones, The Drone Rules, 2021 has been drafted on the premise of trust, self-certification and non-intrusive monitoring, says the ministry of civil aviation.

Going forward, the ministry has also announced plans to establish an Unmanned Aircraft Systems Promotion Council that will incorporate voices from the industry as well.

Commenting on the rules, Smit Shah, director, Drone Federation of India (DFI) said, “The issuance of these rules marks a new era in the Indian drone ecosystem which has a market potential of more than INR 50,000 Cr and can create 5,00,000 professional jobs in the next five years. The regulations which cover drones up to 500 kgs shall open up opportunities for indigenous manufacturing of delivery drones and drone taxis making India future-ready.”

Industry Demands: What Has Not Changed

The Rules Are In The Form Of Announcements

“The Central Government may, within thirty days of the date of notification of these rules, publish on the digital sky platform, an airspace map for unmanned aircraft system operations segregating the entire airspace of India into red zone, yellow zone and green zone, with a horizontal resolution equal or finer than 10 meters,” the document mentions.

The Drone Rules, 2021 (August 26, 2021) suggests that the interactive map on the Digital Sky platform will be readied in the next 30 days. Similarly, it states that the central government may, (within 60 days of the date of publication of these rules) publish a policy framework in respect of the Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management System on the digital sky platform.

But, this is not the first time that the DGCA is making such announcements. Right, since 2018, assurances regarding the Digital Sky readiness and frameworks about drone delivery has been given multiple times. Not a single time, the government met its timelines.

For instance, while announcing the Drone Regulations 1.0, the ministry had asserted that the Digital Sky will be functional by December 1, 2018, however, till today it is not fully functional. Similarly, Drone Regulations 2.0 which was set to be launched in March 2019 was intended to promote drone deliveries and flyability beyond visual line of sight. Needless to say, that didn’t happen.

Karan Kamdar, founder and CEO of deeptech startup 1 Martian Way and president of Indian Drone Racing League says, “Last checked, these forms that are mentioned in the Drone Rules, 2021 were not uploaded on the Digital Sky. These are not available online yet.”

And, without the Digital Sky being fully ready, the Drone Rules, 2021 simply can’t be enforced.

“Airspace mapping and air traffic control management systems are critical to the functioning of the drone industry. These are not ready yet,” he adds.

Similarly, with no frameworks, drone deliveries will remain a distant dream for startups.

These Rules Do Not Delve Into Indoor Drone Flying

Indoor drones are an essential part of commercial drones, be it picking goods from warehouses or collecting visual data in confined areas. The Rules, 2021 has announced plans to launch an interactive map that will segregate the entire airspace of India into the given zones: Red, Yellow and Green.

However, it does not delve into the essential guidelines that need to be followed while using drones indoors. For instance, the drone pilots eligibility, training etc have not been identified in the case of indoor and outdoor. As both need separate skill sets.

Kamdar says, “The government has announced that it is creating a very interactive API map for all three zones, properly distinguished. But these cannot be taken into account in the case of indoor areas. The restrictions and the kind of clarity that is needed as to what constitutes the safe operation of a drone in indoor areas for all these applications — have not been mentioned.”

The Rules Don’t Clarify Custom Duty

Earlier, any person/organisation seeking import of drones or their parts was required to get security clearance from DGCA. This was applicable for the prototype drones as well.

The Drone Rules, 2021 has made it a little easier to import. The present rules simply suggest that it will be regulated by the Directorate General of Foreign Trade or any other entity authorised by the Central Government.

India’s drone sector is currently heavily reliant on imports from China. Whether it’s fully made or components, manufacturers and operators have been importing it from China, Korea and some other country markets.

A drone startup founder quoted at the beginning of this article commented, “There is nothing in the document (The Drone Rules, 2021) when it comes to custom duty-related clarifications. It does not provide clarity as to what kind of an inspection by the customs is going to be required when certain drone parts or drones are imported. There is no time-bound clarity on how much time customs take to clear otherwise it might get stuck endlessly.”

The Rules Fail To Promote Drone Sports

Right from the FAI World Drone Racing World Cup to various drone soccer games across the world, India has failed to participate in most of these competitions due to unfriendly drone regulations at home.

Despite multiple suggestions, Kamdar of 1 Martian Way states that the latest Rules, 2021 once again has continued with the minimum drone pilot age criteria as 18 years. And that’s the problem. Because, globally, that is not the case. For instance, in Thailand, Woravit Subsri who is a celebrated FPV pilot and a member of the XBlades Racing team is just 6-year-old.

In countries like Singapore, the US it is restricted to 16 year-olds and above.  However, in the US too, the drone rules are liberalised to the extent that one does not need even a pilot license if not flying for commercial uses. Hence, parents start training their kids at a very early age.

This is not the case in India, says Kamdar. A couple of years back, there was an FAI Drone World Cup in China; out of 168 participants from across the world, not one Indian team had participated in the Cup.

Can The Govt Walk The Talk?

Back in April 2018, the Indian government had constituted a 13-member task force under the chairmanship of the then minister of state for civil aviation Jayant Sinha for fast-tracking the roll-out of drone technology.

However, little has moved on the ground so far. “What would you do if the local police simply stopped you from flying drones? Despite having shown all the documents, they have done so in the past. Even if we are not required to seek any permission, at times we have to visit the local police / DM and seek a no-objection certificate from these officials. At times, they ask for money,” said a founder who didn’t wish to be named.

“The local police and authorities need to be educated first,” he adds.

Almost all the startup founders that we spoke to, have welcomed the Drone Rules, 2021. Their apprehension however lies in the fact that barring policy flip-flops, nothing has moved since 2018.

Vipul Singh, founder and CEO, Aaarav Unmanned Systems said, “The new drone rules are pragmatic, progressive, entrepreneur-friendly and futuristic. These rules will make the Indian INR 5 Bn drone market in the next three years. This time not only as a consumer but creators of world-class solutions.”

With the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Promotion Council, the government has also reassured industry participation while going forward regarding the drone delivery framework.

Having failed in the past, can the government walk the talk, this one time?

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