Drones are coming to India — just as soon as they cross this final hurdle

Pranav Dixit June 3, 2016 4 min

Drones are coming to the Indian skies. At least that’s what we’ve been told for more than a year now.

But 15 months after a a senior Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) official told The Indian Express that the regulator would clear the norms for the commercial use of drones in India “in the next one or two months”, there was no sign that anyone at the DGCA still cared.

“We’ve been behind them since then,” says John Livingstone, a former Indian Navy officer and President of the Consortium of Unmanned Vehicle Systems India (CUVSI), a drone industry lobby that includes drone manufacturers from across the country.

In the first week of May, the DGCA suddenly showed signs of life. It released an 8-page draft paper about drone regulation in India, inviting stakeholders to send in comments by May 21, before the regulator releases a final version.

Civilians — regular people like you and me — are increasingly using drones for surveys, commercial photography, assessing damage to property and life in natural calamities, and more, acknowledges the DGCA in the draft. We need rules.

Here are some of the highlights of the DGCA draft paper:

1. Every drone sold in India must have a Unique Identification Number (UIN).

2. Every person flying a drone must have a permit. If you’re flying a drone below 200 feet from ground level, you will need a permit from your local administration. If you’re flying above 200 feet, you will need one from the DGCA.

3. You’ll need to submit an application for this permit at least 90 days before you actually fly a drone.

For his part, Livingstone says that India’s drone makers and people in the drone industry that his lobby represents, are mostly satisfied with the DGCA’s recommendations. “The good thing, from the industry’s point of view is that we finally have some regulations after mere promises of one for a year,” he says.

That doesn’t mean that the CUVSI is settling for what the DGCA has put out, though. On the scorching afternoon of May 16, over two dozen members of the CUVSI gathered in a cramped classroom on the second floor of a building in Amity University’s Noida campus to discuss the draft paper.

“We need to ask them to increase the requirement of a permit from the DGCA from 200 feet to 400 feet, said Pravin Prajapati, a project engineer at the Indian government’s Department of Science and Technology.

This suggestion was unanimously agreed upon, and made it to the letter of recommendations that the CUVSI eventually sent to the DGCA for consideration.

“Personally, 200 feet is quite enough,” Livingstone told me later. “But at 400 feet, you are at liberty to fly further and do many more things. And, of course, the filmmakers and the wedding photographers are worried about what they will do if they need to take a shot over 200 feet.”

India’s drone industry is also worried about what the 90-day window to get a permit will mean for it. “Everything needs to be faster,” says Livingstone. “You can’t expect a regular person to wait 90 days to wait for a permit before they can use the drone they’ve bought.” It’s a bit like buying a car and not being able to drive it because your driving license, which you applied for two months ago, still isn’t here.

The CUVSI is also pitching itself to the DGCA to be a certification agency for drone pilots to train them to safely operate drones. “We have more than 4 qualified military UAV pilots who have more than 10,000 flying hours combined on the Searcher and Heron MALE (Medium Altitude Long Endurance) UAVs that are presently being operated in the Indian Armed Forces” says the CUVSI’s letter to the DGCA.

This is because the DGCA’s recommendations on this front are extremely ambiguous, says Livingstone. “Their recommendations only say that the person flying a drone should have ‘adequate knowledge’,” he says. “Having pilots who are trained and certified would go a long way in flying drones safely.”

So what happens next? The DGCA is currently in the process of reviewing the responses to its recommendations from the CUVSI and other stakeholders. It may take a couple of months to draw up final regulations for drones in India — or it can take its own sweet time, as we’ve discovered.

Until then, drones in India remain in a regulatory grey zone. If you’re in the business — maybe you do wedding photography, or do aerial surveys of farms using drones — you’re probably going to want to hold off for a while to avoid any legal trouble. If you’re a drone enthusiast, you can probably pick one up online or from your nearest electronics market — but make sure you don’t fly it on your terrace, in your neighbourhood, or even in your city. Take it outskirts, if you can, and remember to fly as low as you possibly can.

When the DGCA does make up its mind, we’ll be right here to tell you it’s OK for take-off.

If you’d like to read the CUVSI’s list of recommendations to the DGCA in its entirety, you can find it below. 

CUVSI's Letter to DGCA

Lead image: Pixabay