Drone woes: As regulatory delays persist, companies seek provisional fixes to fly drones in India

Nilesh Christopher April 2, 2019

Indian drone users will have to wait longer to fly legally compliant drones as the government is yet to iron out several operational issues related to testing, certification, and quality control. With the civil aviation regulator missing its April 1 deadline for launching its Digital Sky platform for permitting drones to fly, manufacturers are seeking provisional approvals from authorities to begin operations.

India’s civilian drone law came into effect on December 1, ending a four-year ban on using drones that weigh more than two kilograms. The law lays down the obligations of operators, pilots and manufacturers for the safe operation of drones in Indian airspace. A month later, the civil aviation ministry unveiled its Drone Policy 2.0, which paves the way for wider applications of drones even beyond an operator’s visual line of sight.

The government even created Digital Sky as a single-window online platform for drone companies to apply for permissions and get instant approvals for flight operations, management and registration. This would make operations easy for enterprises running large fleets of drones for applications such as air surveys and food-delivery.

A model of the automated drone permissioning system on digital sky beta website

In fact, three days after the Directorate General of Civil Aviation green-flagged the use of drones in December, food-delivery platform Zomato announced its acquisition of drone startup TechEagle Innovations to enable a hub-to-hub food-delivery network.

While the government’s initiatives are likely to attract more investments into India’s drone sector, operational challenges around the proposed regulations continue to hold back an industry that’s estimated to grow to $885.7 million in size by 2021.

What’s holding up India’s drone industry?

A twofold problem: One, only a small minority of drone makers is prepared to comply with the government’s no-permission-no-takeoff (NPNT) requirement, either because they are ignorant of it or, more likely, in denial. Two, the regulators are still deliberating on the standards for testing the airworthiness of drones, both in terms of hardware and software.

For drones to operate in Indian airspace, drone manufacturers such as China’s DJI ought to implement NPNT to ensure that all their drones are compliant with government regulations. The government has released the technical specifications for NPNT compliance for manufacturers to be able to roll out relevant upgrades to their drones.

But “currently, only a few forward-thinking manufacturers have bought into the idea of implementing NPNT,” says Mrinal Pai, cofounder of Skylark Drones, a drone services company.

Only four companies — Ideaforge, Aarav Unmanned Systems, Skylark Drones, and Asteria Aerospace — have so far declared to DCGA that they are NPNT-complaint, say industry executives FactorDaily spoke with.

Drone manufacturers and regulators gathered at Ekstep office in Koramangala to discuss the road ahead for drones in India Photo: Mrinal Pai

“There is still resistance within the drone industry, where small manufacturers operating at a local state or taluk level do not feel the need to be NPNT-compliant,” says an industry expert who is working with DGCA on drone regulations. “They have not realised that implementing NPNT is the only way forward. Many are not aware of the new rule yet.”

China-based DJI, the largest drone manufacturer by market share in India, has not yet shown interest in the NPNT system, according to industry executives. The company did not reply to questions emailed by FactorDaily.

Unless the NPNT software add-on is implemented, no drone manufacturer can sell their drones in India. That, in turn, would mean no drone user — hobbyist or otherwise — can run legal drone operations in the country unless the drone is by a manufacturer that is NPNT-certified.

Implementation issues

While awareness is a problem, there exists a bigger operational problem of testing the airworthiness of drones manufactured by companies declaring themselves to be compliant with DGCA’s requirements.

For drone manufacturers, DGCA has published the requirements relating to software identification of drones, registered flight modules, the NPNT system, flight logs, and other such aspects. This is to be followed by all manufacturers that want to sell drones in India. However, the regulator is struggling with framing a system to check the hardware and software capabilities of drones to certify them as airworthy.  

“What kind of tests should be done on your software, what workflow should it follow for you to be deemed NPNT-compliant, is not final yet,” says Vipul Singh, cofounder of Aarav Unmanned System (AUS), a drone manufacturer and service provider.

DGCA and the Airports Authority of India (AAI) didn’t reply to emails seeking more details and comments.

“For hardware, DGCA has set certain standards for different components of the drone. How to test the dimensions, stability and flight control. How to define that? Is your drone and flight module tamper-proof? All these are still being deliberated,” says Singh.

Pai adds, “Regulators are taking time to understand how to really test (NPNT) since this is a firmware-level test.”

The impact of the delays has already started to play out.

For the last three months, we actually have not been able to do anything (except focus on NPNT compliance),” says Singh. “There are a few government projects where the government themselves have taken permission and necessary measures to operate drones at the local level. In the private sector, you can’t do anything.”

This has pushed industry members to ask for temporary certifications of their drones. A workshop held on March 30 in Bengaluru saw representatives from DGCA, Quality Council of India (QCI) and other experts ponder over ways to authorise provisional certification for compliant manufacturers.

The workshop where regulators and industry met to discuss the procedure for provisional clearances (dated March 30, 2019) Photo: Mrinal Pai

“Even if you have self-certification there have to be minimum requirements (that have to be met). This is to make sure everyone has a base minimum of compliance,” says Tanuj Bhojwani, volunteer at iSPIRT, the software product industry think-tank that has been involved in the framing of drone regulations.

“In the long-term, there will be separate testing labs to do the inspection of a manufacturer’s implementation,” says Bhojwani. “The standards are open, you (manufacturers) can build against those standards and test. But we can’t wait for that. In order to unblock we are issuing provisional certificates.”

India doesn’t have testing labs. DGCA has reportedly signed an agreement with QCI for it to empanel public and private labs to test implementation of regulatory requirements by drone companies. Even the provisional certification process is likely to take a while since it will have to go through stakeholder consultation and public comments.  

Where is Digital sky at?  

The creation of the Digital Sky platform involves integrating drone registrations, management and flight operations on a single online platform. The system is designed to automate the entire chain of permissions required to own and operate a drone in India, from the registration of an unmanned aerial vehicle to planning and flying them — obviating long wait time and saving a tonne of paperwork.

The platform, which was supposed to be operational by April 1, has missed another deadline and is yet to go live with its automated permissioning system.

Industry executives say the latest delay was due to the cancellation of the request for proposal (RFP) for companies to build, host and maintain the Digital Sky system. “Operational issues with the bids placed for the tenders led to the cancellation. About a month-and-a-half ago, it was re-tendered,” says a person aware of the developments, declining to be identified.

The non-availability of air space data from multiple states is another hurdle. For the automated permissioning system to go live, all of Indian air space has to be categorised into green, yellow and red zones.

A model of the the zoning of air space where drone operators can selected their flight path/area

Green zones are air spaces where drones are free to fly. If a company applies for permission to fly in a green zone, it would get immediate approval. Flying drones in yellow zones would require additional permissions.

Yellow zones are controlled airspace monitored by air traffic control (ATC). If it approves a request, the permission artefact goes to air defence. Air defence does not release air traffic data since military movement is secretive and under wraps. But once they receive a request, they would approve or reject it depending on the military activity in the area.

The red zone marks air space over areas such as sensitive defence territories, state assembly buildings and other such no-fly regions for drones.

But for the system to work there needs to be data at the backend to offer permission based on these categories, which is currently unavailable.

“As of now, the Digital Sky backend does not have the necessary data to offer automated permissions. Until and unless there is a data bank (at the back) giving you the permission artefact and verifying the flying location, you can’t fly,” says Singh.  “If that data is available then the beta website itself can be operationalised for a tentative period. But it is just the final layer that is ready, which is now dependent on a lot of information that has to come from the government.”

Committees formed under the Ministry of Home Affairs were underway for four months preparing air space data for what should be green, yellow and red in states across India.

“About 70% of the states have submitted their data. Air Defence has also submitted all their data,” says the second person quoted earlier. “There was a lot of back and forth. In some cases, maximum red limit was reduced from 2 km to 100-500 meters after much deliberation.”

Another operational challenge for Digital Sky relates to the security clearance an organisation would need to obtain from the Ministry of Home Affairs. The clearance, which is provided through an online platform, does not include a drone category yet.

“At this moment, Digital Sky is not a single-window platform,” says Singh of AUS. “It is a single window when you have all the prerequisites needed to be obtained from different windows. It (would) still solve a lot of problems, but only when it operationalises.”


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