Digital sky rules, multi-ministry approvals further delay drone regulations

Anand Murali April 4, 2018 6 min

India’s ambitious plans for a drones policy built on a so-called digital sky framework has hit a roadblock over clearances from the ministry of home affairs and various defence establishments. This will further delay regulations that are already behind schedule and may even end up amending some of the proposed rules.

“The CAR is not finalised yet. We are currently awaiting comments from the Ministry of Home Affairs, only after which we will be able to finalise and release the CAR,” a senior official at the Directorate General of Civil Aviation, India’s aviation regulator, told FactorDaily. CAR is short for Civil Aviation Requirements that set rules for operating drones and other unmanned aerial systems (UAS).

According to the official, the DGCA and the ministry of home affairs met last week to discuss the draft.

While publishing the draft CAR for drones in November 2017, the civil aviation ministry had said it expected to finalise drone regulations in two months time. “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, the then minister for civil aviation had told reporters after release of the draft CAR.

The ministry of civil aviation along with the DGCA had held open houses in Delhi and Bengaluru in November and December for public comments.

But the automated, single-window clearance system is proving to more difficult to implement that anticipated.

Pusapati Ashok Gajapathi Raju former Union Minister for Civil Aviation
Pusapati Ashok Gajapathi Raju, former Union Minister for Civil Aviation

“It will take a few months before the policy will come out. There are so many loopholes and so much has to be fixed, that it can’t happen overnight. The policy will have to clearly outline aspects of privacy and trespassing,” a senior government official with knowledge of the policy told FactorDaily. “Then are are problems of terrorist threats. The policy will have to detail how to manage these problems. The ministry of home affairs and ministry of defence will have to clear those and only then will the policy come out.”

According to this official, sorting out air traffic regulations and incorporating the handling of rogue drones are other things that are yet to be figured out. “The government will also have to detail out air traffic regulations, what actions need to be taken if a drone goes rogue, and who will take the legal liabilities if something happens. In its current form, these problems and concerns are not detailed out. Then, the drones are also a problem — some of them are too small for easy detection. For air traffic controllers that’s an added burden,” the official added

Digital sky delay

The latest set of delays will impact the rollout of an industry expected to generate millions of dollars in revenues and thousands of jobs.

The absence of regulations is coming in the way of scale, one industry executive said. “From a capital standpoint we are not being able to raise capital because most people look at the industry and are of the opinion that the space has been unregulated for the past three years and we don’t know how long this will go on,” said Rahat Kulshreshtha, founder and CEO of Quidich Innovation Labs.

Quidich has the contract to provide drone-based aerial live feed for this year’s Indian Premier League cricket series starting later this week. With the number of clearances it will require, Kulshreshtha has his fingers crossed. The regulation can be brought out and fine-tuned later, he suggested.

Along with the release of the draft CAR for drones in November 2017, India’s minister of state for civil aviation Jayant Sinha also spoke about his plans for digital sky, an ambitious attempt to integrate drone registration, management, and flight operations on to a single automated platform.

The digital sky system envisioned a three-dimensional mapping of the skies and the ability to file digital flight plans through a dedicated portal by entering drone and pilot details as also the origin and destination coordinates. The flight approvals would be digital and faster than a system involving processing by humans. The traffic, being managed by a digital air traffic management system, would clear airspace according to the file flight plan filed, which also has to be downloaded into the drone software.

The biggest challenge with digital sky is the way in which registration, authentication, fleet management and flight operations all have to be integrated and automated. Another challenge was the multiple agencies and ministries that had to work in tandem to clear the draft regulations and then work together while issuing drone certifications, registrations and drone pilot licences.

Initially, the plan was to release the drone policy and then integrate the digital sky into the regulations once it was ready, but according to sources, the ministry wants to now combine the two.

Most countries including Australia, China, US, Canada and the UK already have rules for drones in place and modify them when required. In comparison, the Indian drone regulations are not that strict but systems like the digital sky are way more complex than what has attempted in other countries. For example, the US Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA, has tied up with private companies AirMap and Skyward to provide automated flight authorisation for drones. Similarly, New Zealand and Japan also have an automated airspace management system in place for drones with the help of AirMap.

Confusion in the ecosystem

Systems that require integration of multiple factors working seamlessly require detailed preparation and the drone industry is no different, said Ananth Padmanabhan, a fellow at think tank Carnegie India.

“A delay in regulations in any technology led field, like the drone ecosystem, can lead to a lack of investors confidence and will result in the ecosystem and startups missing out the technology wave,” said Padmanabhan. “Today, a lot of what we see in the drone ecosystem is what we have seen happening two years back. Uncertainty and delay in regulations can also prevent an ecosystem from scaling up and gaining traction.”

Most drone companies and startups in India offer services that range from monitoring of critical infrastructure, GIS surveying/mapping, industrial inspection to precision agriculture. Without regulations that ease operations, most of these companies have to take permission from local authorities and the DGCA for every operation or flight they undertake.

Over-regulation is another risk. For example, a post by Devendra Damle and Shubho Roy, researchers at the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy in New Delhi, points to a guideline in the CAR that establishes a no-fly zone in areas within 50 km of India’s land. “The no-fly zone covers nearly 44% of the total area of West Bengal, nearly 39% of Bihar, and nearly 33% of Punjab,” the authors conclude.

DGCA had first issued a notification on the restriction or ban on launching drones in India, back in October 7, 2014.

“DGCA is in the process of formulating the regulations (and globally harmonize those) for certification & operation for use of UAS in the Indian Civil Airspace. Till such regulations are issued, no non government agency, organization, or an individual will launch a UAS in Indian Civil Airspace for any purpose whatsoever. The above is for strict compliance,” the October 2014 release by DGCA said.

On April 21, 2016, the first draft of the guidelines for using drones and UAS in India was released by the DGCA. More than a year and half passed after this first draft when the latest and reworked draft CAR was released in November 2017.

(Sunny Sen contributed to reporting this story.)


Updated at 03:13 pm on April 10, 2018  to correct a typo in the headline.

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