India’s plan for a digital sky and drone regulations has a few road bumps ahead before takeoff

Anand Murali December 15, 2017

Think of a scene from the Jetsons, or the movie Blade Runner with air taxis, the police, private vehicles and public transport, all whizzing about through virtual corridors in the air. The Indian government’s Digital Sky concept, pitched as part of India’s draft drone regulations, could look like that.

At a public consultation meeting earlier this month, India’s minister of state for civil aviation, Jayant Sinha, gave us a glimpse of what it could look like: In 5-10 years, we’ll have lots of large drones flying around. To control them, we’ll have unmanned automated air traffic control. “…digital air traffic management and for that, we need digital skies,” he said at the open house which was held as part of public consultations on a new policy that seeks to regulate drones or unmanned aerial vehicle systems.

Even though the idea seems a bit far-fetched, Sinha feels that to develop an ecosystem you have to look five to ten years ahead and anticipate requirements. He also said that companies should also look at developing drone solutions to solve problems that we currently face in transportation in India.

“Why not use the problems of India, of congestion, of traffic etc to really come up with fabulous new technologies and solutions. That’s what we have to do and that’s what these standards and regulations are intended for,” the minister said.

The system he envisions involves mapping the skies in 3D and the ability to file in digital flight plans through a dedicated portal by entering the origin and destination coordinates. The flight approvals would be digital and faster. The traffic, being managed by a digital air traffic management system, will clear the airspace according to the file flight plan filed, which also has to be downloaded into the drone software.

All this sounds futuristic. But does the policy draft reflect that?

Getting down to the details

The Indian draft drone regulations for operating UAS was published by the government earlier in November this year. The draft was open for comments until December and public consultations were held in cities including Delhi and Bengaluru.

Many felt that the draft drone regulations were a bit too stringent, but Sinha says that many of the regulations are in place in the interest of national security. Companies, individuals and educational institutions who operate drones are concerned about some of the aspects of the policy.

Also Read: How India’s draft drone policy stacks up against laws in other countries

Revisit the weight category

One of the primary concerns raised by the drone operator’s community, that includes companies and individuals, was that the weight classifications, especially in the micro category, should be increased. Currently, micro UAVs are classified up to 2Kgs of weight and companies want the DGCA to revisit the weight classification in this category.

“For any useful application like industrial or in other similar sectors you will require a sizeable payload and that will cross the 2 Kg mark and usually come near the 4 Kg limit,” Neel Mehta, co-founder and director of drone manufacturer Asteria Aerospace told FactorDaily. The micro category has fewer regulations to comply with as compared to other categories.

Operational requirements for drones in India
Operational requirements for drones in India

Operational altitude to be increased from 300 ft AGL to 400 ft above ground level

Drone operators who provide services such as aerial survey and mapping complain that the maximum altitude to fly a drone specified in the draft must be raised. The lower you fly the less area you can cover. Their ask is to raise operational altitude from 200 ft to 400 ft above the ground level.

“For large-scale drone operations, like survey, mapping and agricultural use cases, 400 ft AGL is the sweet spot between good resolution data and optimal use of the battery,” Gokul Kumaravelu, Policy lead at Skylark Drones told FactorDaily.

According to Kumaravelu, current imagining sensors used in services like aerial survey, 400 ft AGL is the ideal height to operate so as to ensure that you have covered the most amount of ground and also get good quality data. “Flying at 200 ft will result in higher battery consumption and the data you collect will make the processing very hard because files become very heavy for processing,” he said.

Better access and flight limitation at test site

According to the draft regulations, there are 24 test sites assigned across India which many feel are too few and too far from cities. One of the suggestions from the attendees was to allow testing in pre-monitored spaces test zones like ones owned by organisations like Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) which are already operational and in use.

“One of the primary requirements as a drone manufacturer or developer is to have easy access to test sites. Either DGCA can assign and monitor these test sites or authorise other agencies who have the space for testing to do the same on their behalf,” said Neel Mehta.

Identified test sites for drones in India.

Also according to him, since these areas are designated as test sites, operations in these areas should be allowed beyond the regulated limits of weight and height so that the boundaries of the drones and other UAS can be tested.

Training protocol for drone pilots

Another concern raised was about the lack of clarity on the training of drone pilots. Pilot’s operating drone in the ‘min and above’ category and some other use cases are required to get an Unmanned Aircraft Operator Permit (UAOP). But there is a lack of clarity about how and where this license it to be obtained.

Many operators and companies also feel that training or licensing required for drone pilots and the minimum age limit can be a barrier to adoption. The drone pilot training requirements in the draft regulation look complex and similar to that required by pilots of manned aircrafts.

“It is important to keep the training aspects of RPAS (UAVs) congruent with the nature of the equipment. Such equipment does not require knowledge of certain aspects of manned aircraft operations, which is a large part of the reason for their popularity. They have the ability to democratize the benefits of the aerial perspective without the complication of having a man-on-board,” Ankit Mehta, Co-founder and CEO of Ideaforge told FactorDaily.

Also see: Yes, flying drones can be a full-time job: Meet the new drone pilots of Bengaluru

Aeromodellers want out

The aeromodelling community has come out strongly against the draft drone regulations. Hillol Biswas, Director, (Aircraft Engineering), DGCA who was also at the open house said that the DGCA has already received a signature campaign comprising of about 3600 aeromodellers from across India who have raised concerns about policy being applicable to model aircrafts.

They want a separate regulation for aeromodelling activities as in Australia and other countries. The community feels that, Aeromodelling which is more of a hobby than a commercial activity, will be stifled if the new regulations come into place and have demanded that model aircrafts should not be clubbed with drones when it comes to regulations.

The final drone regulations

The last date for comments was on December 1st and the DGCA has said that it is already aware of many of these concerns and are already looking into them. The final drone regulation is expected to be out in January 2018.


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