Future-ready regulation is India’s first step towards widescale drones adoption

Anand Murali Sunny Sen November 2, 2017 8 min

Story Highlights

  • Final drone policy to be ready by the year end, after two months of public consultation.
  • Each drone needs to be registered before they can fly and must complete the listed operational procedures before each time they fly.
  • Drones are not allowed to fly over clearly defined areas which will be categorised as ‘No Drone Zone’.

India is putting in place an ambitious regulatory framework that will encourage the commercial use of drones in areas as diverse as construction to agriculture, industrial monitoring to photography, disaster management to physical deliveries — potentially giving rise to a new industry that could generate millions of dollars in revenues and thousands of jobs.

The draft of the “drone policy” – to be ready after two months of public consultation and codifying rules – was released by the central government in New Delhi on Wednesday. In doing so, India is seen ahead of countries such as the United States where President Donald Trump last week directed the department of transportation to create a plan to allow drones for commercial use.

“Not having a regulation was amounting to total ban of any activity and that doesn’t make sense. A lot of people were enquiring about it and wondered why we delayed it,” Pusapati Ashok Gajapathi Raju, Minister of Civil Aviation, told reporters.

Investment bank Goldman Sachs last March estimated the global spending on drones to be $100 billion in five years led by applications in mapping and construction, where drones can cut down surveying time by as much as 98%.

Once made official, the new regulations in India will allow ecommerce companies like Amazon to use drones to deliver goods to the customer doorsteps. The company has already filed a patent application in India for exclusive rights on multi-scale fiducials, which are essentially black and white marks or scales for drones to identify objects or places from a distance.

To put that in perspective, all ecommerce companies put together do more than three lakh orders every day. Even a fraction of those to be delivered by drones would open up a lot of opportunities for drone companies.

A logistics CEO said companies like his could be among the first to start using drones. “At a time where people are paying more for quicker delivery, drones can change the game… But the government will have to define the air routes, and that will have to be integrated with our delivery software,” said the CEO of one of India’s largest ecommerce logistics companies asking both he and his company not be named because the regulations are not final.

Apart from ecommerce, drones will see a use by real estate companies, in wildlife photography, by insurance companies and oil and gas companies for inspection, and for a large number of courier and delivery companies. Already companies such as Reliance Industries, oil PSUs Indian Oil, Bharat Petroleum and Hindustan Petroleum, and Coromandel Fertilisers are said to have deployed drones for inspection of their equipment and facilities.

Jayant Sinha, minister of state for civil aviation, said drones are currently used for weddings and ad films and could similarly be used to deliver medicines and medical supplies. “The idea is to allow unfettered and unrestricted use of these drones so that we can develop new and unique applications.”

Jayant Sinha, Minister of State for Civil Aviation
Jayant Sinha, Minister of State for Civil Aviation

He added that bigger drones could even be used to transport people from one place to another (remember the animation series, Jetsons). “If anyone wants to drive passenger drones, something like the air rickshaw — the regulatory framework allows you to operate passenger drones and air rickshaws. These innovations need to happen. We have given the framework to do these innovations by the drone manufacturers and designers,” Sinha said, adding the aim was to have the regulations “future ready”.

Continuity of an earlier fiat

In April 2016, the government had put out a circular, which in many ways resembles the new draft policy, but the new one is better and makes way for drones to take flight.

“There might be changes in category and other specifications but (I am) very happy with the new draft. There are no unnecessary complications. Looks like (the policymakers’) heart is in the right place,” said Ankit Mehta, CEO and cofounder of Mumbai drone maker Ideaforge.

The aviation ministry said each drone needs to be registered before they can fly and listed operational procedures that drone owners will have to complete each time a drone takes off. Drones have been categorised in five different categories based on weight – starting at less than 250 gms and the largest ones weighing more than 150 kgs – and their end use.

A one-time clearance will be required for registering the drone, civil aviation secretary Rajiv Nayan Choubey told FactorDaily at the sidelines of Wednesday’s press conference. “The permissions you need to take while operating it each time will come separately. As far as the operations is concerned – flight plan, filing the clearance of air defence number, and information to local police – every time when the drone goes into the sky, these have to be furnished.”

Even in the case of filling for the flight plan and clearances, the ministry said that doing ot manually on paper will take very long and hence is working on a web-based digital template for the operator to file it on the website or app, without any manual intervention.

The draft regulation has also clearly defined areas which will be categorised as ‘No Drone Zone’, like an area covering five-km radius from Vijay Chowk in New Delhi among others. The area has top government offices and housing, including the Rashtrapati Bhavan. No drone or UAS will be permitted to operate in these marked areas but operators can request for permission to operate in the no drone zones in exceptional cases.

The ministry also said that in future if the drone space gets too crowded, there are also plans to deploy an air traffic control (ATC) for drones which should help ease out drone congestion in the skies.

Industry experts echo the government’s concerns. “There should also be ATC for drones. Earlier, in case of autonomous delivery one couldn’t have gone beyond the line-of-sight. For delivery, you need an autonomous vehicle not a manually operated one,” said Nimish Sharma, Senior Director at logistics company Delhivery. He leads the company’s drone R&D operations.

The regulatory framework covers use, operations, and maintenance of drones but there is a need to ease up norms for manufacturing them, Sharma added. “If you can’t import parts, how will you manufacture drones? The ecosystem will take a while to develop. There are very strict norms from the DIPP on who can manufacture,” he said. DIPP is short for the government’s department of industrial promotion and policy.

The real outcome of the new regulations will be when large scale drone manufacturing takes off in India. That will also open up markets for international companies such as DJI Drones and GoPro to start retailing in India. Their products are largely available in the grey market today with no warranty and often double the price to elsewhere in the world.

Nixing terrorist attacks

But before that, there is a lot of work that the government needs to do, like fix the routes, which will allow the drones to fly. The government also said that it is separately working on technologies that permits the approvals are loaded on the drone itself and not be allowed to deviate from a pre-fixed route even if the operator wants it to do so.

Then there are issues of safety to avoid, say, terrorist attacks using drones. Choubey said that the ministry is also developing a way to tackle rogue drones that may pose a threat. “We are working on technologies on neutralising all rogue drones — whether it is a drone which has taken permission and is deviating from its area of work or it is drone, which has not taken permissions.”

Choubey has already have had one round of meetings and the next meeting is on Nov 8 to put a framework to track down these drones. Also, he is worried about the congestion in the skies. “They should not collide with each other or fall down on people and hurt them. We will keep watch of the situations and carry out amendments to the policy,” he added.

Once these are sorted, a large number of companies are expected to experiment with drones. “Pilot projects for drone use cases won’t be held back any more. More pilots and business cases for drones will emerge and can be tested,” said Mehta, whose company Ideaforge has been developing drones for the defence sector and for monitoring critical infrastructure for private companies.

Meanwhile drone racing in India has picked up as a hobby with it being a mainstay event across tech festivals in India. The enterprise drone space in India has also gained the attention of venture capitalists giving rise to a handful of funded startups that offer drone as a service across India.

Defence forces and other local law and order authorities have been partnering or developing drones with Indian startups for activities like monitoring our borders, keeping a check on unmanned areas like forests, maintaining law and order during civilian events like festival and events. The railways have also use been using drones to monitor tracks across various parts of India.

Earlier this year Professor KPJ Reddy along with two other scientists at the Department of Aerodynamics, Bangalore, Dr H N Science Centre, and the Department of Forest, conducted India’s first ever drone-seeding trial on the banks of river Pinakini in the Gauribidanur area in Karnataka’s Kolar district. The project plans to at least seed 10,000 acres, and will be doing this every year, for three consecutive years in a hope to to make the whole area green and turn inaccessible areas into forests.

It is just a matter of time that drones might fly into your balcony to deliver your Amazon order, instead of the delivery boy rigging the door bell.


Visuals: Nikhil Raj

Updated at 11:00am Novermber 3, 2017: A link to the draft CAR released by DGCA for consultation has been added in the post.

Disclosure: FactorDaily is owned by SourceCode Media, which counts Accel Partners, Blume Ventures and Vijay Shekhar Sharma among its investors. Accel Partners is an early investor in Flipkart. Vijay Shekhar Sharma is the founder of Paytm. None of FactorDaily’s investors have any influence on its reporting about India’s technology and startup ecosystem.