India’s plan for a digital sky finally preps for takeoff as pilots begin

Anand Murali May 17, 2018

The Mysore airport was shut for two hours sometime mid-March, a notice had been issued by the airport authorities about an impending drone test in its premise. High ranking officials from India’s civil aviations regulator’s office, the airport authority of India and a couple of men in their twenties from a Bengaluru startup had assembled at the sparingly used airport.

The startup, Skylark Drones, demonstrated a solution it had developed to make it easy for drones to obtain permissions from regulators and ensures that drones stick to a flight plan without posing any security threats.

India’s ambitious digital sky program that will open up the market for drone applications in the country, seems to be finally taking shape as the Directorate General of Civil Aviation begins working with drone companies.

The plans for digital sky, which involves integrating drone registrations, management, and flight operations on to a single platform, was announced by India’s minister of state for civil aviation Jayant Sinha late last year along with the drone regulation draft. But roadblocks over clearances from the ministry of home affairs and various defence establishments had further delayed the drone regulations that are already behind schedule.The idea was to make a software platform to implement regulations set forth by the drone regulations.

Over the last two months the technical team, which consists of members from the Airport Authority of India(AAI), Directorate General of Civil Aviation(DGCA) and industry members, have been developing the technical architecture of the digital sky program. The team has also been in talks with a handful of drone companies to develop and test capabilities on the digital sky program.

“The core behind digital sky is ‘no permission, no take off,’” says Mrinal Pai, co-founder and chief operating officer of Skylark Drones. “Without digital approval from DGCA or the authority the drones would not take off. The idea is that every manufacturer or drone service provider operating in the India would become complaint to the digital sky system,” says Pai.

The digital sky program is designed to automate the entire chain of permissions required to own and operate a drone or drone service in India starting from registration of the unmanned aerial vehicle to planning and flying them — obviating long wait time and saving a tonne of paperwork.

“The plan is to keep the digital sky framework minimal, which can be easily scaled up as the industry grows. It should be a streamlined process whether you are registering a single drone or a fleet of drones,” says Tanuj Bhojwani, who is part of the technical team developing the digital sky architecture. One of goals of the framework is to keep track of “who flew what, where, when, why and whether it was an authorised flight.”

Digital Sky Architecture

According to Bhojwani, the basic architecture of the system would include drone, pilot and a company registration data repository that would be hosted by the government. All this would be accessible through APIs (APIs are short for application programming interfaces or code that allows apps or services interface and work with an operating system or service or another app.) by approved entities. Once a flight plan is submitted via an app or system developed by these entities and its credentials authenticated, the system would issue the permission which will be transferred to the drone and cryptographically checked for authenticity an only then would the drone be able to take off.

At the demonstration in Mysore, the Sklyark Drone’s team showed officials a functioning prototype based on this architecture and simulated a take off where permissions were sought and a flight plan was authenticated automatically. “Some of the prerequisites for the permission for the drone to take off included identification of the pilot, the coordinates of where the drone is going to be flown and what day and time the operation is taking place,” said Pai. For the demonstration, the team also flew drones out of approved flight path. Once the drone landed, it was able to automatically generate an incident report to be submitted to the digital sky system.

Tackling Rogue Drones

No system is foolproof and bad actors will operate without authorisation no matter what regulations are in place, but a system like this could bring some sense of order and certainty at a time when there are more than a handful of unauthorised drone operations that occur everyday.

“Drone sighting in an area could be reported to the authorities via an app or portal. This could then be cross verified by authorities based on the location and time of the sighting to confirm whether the sighting was that of an authorised flight or not, after which the required action could be initiated by the authorities,” adds Bhojwani citing it as an example of how such a system could help with preventing unauthorised flights.

Then there is also the case of damages in case a drone crash lands. It’s harder to ascertain who will be liable and to what extent as in most cases the drone is abandoned when it crashes. A system like this could also help identify those involved.

The technical team is testing out digital sky system with a few other companies as well.

Globally, organisations like the US Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA, have tied up with private companies such as AirMap and Skyward to provide automated flight authorisation for drones. New Zealand and Japan also have an automated airspace management system in place for drones with the help of AirMap.


Visuals: Rajesh Subramanian

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