Hobby circles and research institutions in India have been working (or playing) with drones for a while now. In this context, drones do not just refer to camera based quadcopters, hexacopters or octacopters that we have been hearing about in the news for the past couple of years. Drones refer to fixed-wing or rotor-wing unmanned vehicles that can be used for a variety of purposes fitted with the necessary gear. Quite a few hobbyists/flying-enthusiasts fly these amazing machines simply for the fun of it. And it does feel amazing. We can vouch for that. Researches have a whole different purpose though – a scientific one. Equipped with the proper set of sensors, you can measure quite a few things about the aerodynamics of the drone itself, environmental parameters at various altitudes or hard-to-reach places, detect forest degradation, search and rescue in case of emergencies, identify hot spots in industrial zones using thermal imaging cameras and much more.
On 21-04-2016, Office of the Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) of Government of India announced Draft Guidelines for obtaining Unique Identification Number (UIN) & Operation of Civil Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS). The name of the document explains what it is about but allow us to brief it out in a sentence. The document presents guidelines for obtaining what is the equivalent of an Aadhaar ID in India for a drone (UAS). It also lays out guidelines for who’s qualified for flying a drone (UAS) and how one needs to fly it and what kind of permissions need to be taken before flying it. Here are the key highlights of the guidelines.
Key highlights of the Draft Guidelines:
- Unmanned Aircraft (UA) categories by weight class:
- Micro – Less than 2 Kg
- Mini – More than 2 Kg and less than 20 Kg
- Small – More than 20 Kg and less than 150 Kg
- Large – More than 150 Kg
- Unique Identification Number (UIN) issuance:
- UIN can be granted to an Indian individual or a company based out of India.
- A set of documents that include the UA operator address, purpose of operation of UA, UAS specifications, UA Flight Manual and Maintenance guidelines and a few other permissions from WPC and police department.
- Unmanned Aircraft Operator Permit (UAOP):
- UA operations at or above 200ft require a UAOP from DGCA.
- Operation in controlled airspace is restricted.
- Civil UA operations in uncontrolled airspace & non-restricted areas and Model Aircraft for recreational purposes in uncontrolled and indoor spaces flying below 200ft does not require a UAOP. The UA operator still needs to get permission from local administration and concerned ADC in the case of Civil UA operations.
- UAOP issuance procedure:
- UA operator needs to submit application for UAOP with permits from ANS provider, UA operation land owner, Pilot details & training records, Insurance details if any and security clearance of UA operator from BCAS.
- UAOP application needs to be submitted atleast 90 days ahead of conduction of UA operations.
- UAOP shall be valid for 2 years from date of issuance.
- UA pilot training requirements:
- UA pilot needs to be atleast 18 years old.
- UA pilot needs to have ground training equivalent to that of a manned aircraft and needs to be thoroughly trained in flying a UA and needs to demonstrate the same.
- These requirements are not applicable to Micro category UAs and recreational flying.
- UA operation requirements:
- Irrespective of weight category, UA operator needs to intimate the concerned agencies before and after flight.
- UA flight should be strictly outside the notified prohibited, restricted and danger areas including TSA and TRA in uncontrolled airspace as per the AIP and NOTAM.
- Rules governing flight of manned aircraft and regulations concerning class of airspace to be operated in need to be complied with.
- Flight plan needs to be filed for operations above 200ft.
- Micro and Mini UAs need to be flown in Visual Line of Sight mode (LOS) only and upto 500m VLOS.
- UA needs to be in communication with ATS authority and local police station throughout the flight duration and UA pilot needs to use appropriate call signs (UNMANNED) during communication.
- UA shall not be flown over the entire territory of Delhi (30Km radius of Rashtrapati Bhavan).
- UA shall not be operated in case of low visibility or in adverse environmental conditions.
- UA needs to have appropriate tracking mechanisms and fail-safe mechanisms.
There’s a few points we might have skipped but they are either too technical or are redundant/insignificant compared to the ones mentioned above. For full text of the guidelines, please refer to the document mentioned on the link here.
We welcome the initiative of DGCA in coming up with the draft guidelines. There are a few aspects we take exception to such as the low 200ft height limit (compared to the 400ft limit by countries like U.S.) and the need to keep two-way communication throughout a flight. There is also ambiguity with respect to which weight categories some sections of the regulations are applicable to and whether below 200ft flights require adherence to certain points that usually manned flights are required to follow. We had given our feedback to DGCA requesting for some of the application procedures to be made completely digital and for allowing relaxed regulations for the hobby sector.
It’s been 8 months since the draft was issued but a final set of guidelines still aren’t in sight. Major cities have announced bans on drones due to crashes by a few amateur pilots and flying of drones in restricted areas. We understand that there’s a reason for concern due to the security threats drones pose when unregulated. However, we also hope that the government understands the tremendous potential of this technology and what it can do in domains such as agriculture, disaster relief, forest management, solar/wind power plant monitoring etc. that don’t strictly have much to do with populated areas.
Govt. agencies such as Railways, PGCIL and GAIL have started using drones for project and asset monitoring purposes by taking individual permissions from DGCA. BSF is using drones for border surveillance and other purposes. AP government recently took permission from DGCA to use drones for various purposes. Instead of giving case-to-case permissions, it might do more good if DGCA quickly puts in a place a mechanism that would allow this technology to show its full potential. To start with, off-city limits related activities and hobby/research activities can be given a green light (with proper flight logging procedures). As the tracking and fail-safe methods become more and more prevalent in custom-made drones as well, drones can be slowly brought into picture for urban applications. Check out this autonomous drone delivery by Amazon last week.
Here’s a video of a drone lifting and carrying a human over a distance.
There’s also this actual manned drone from a company called EHANG in China which seems to be doing pilots in order to make the vehicle fully ready for use in urban areas. A proper regulatory mechanism and positive push from the DGCA and related authorities will let the fledgling drone industry in India to not only toy with futuristic ideas like the above but also to come up with solutions specific to India. We do hope to hear something to that effect in 2017. Having said that, the drone industry also has equal responsibility in assuring the authorities of the safety of the technology by developing the necessary supporting technologies independently or in coordination with the government.
Stay tuned for latest updates on how the regulatory scene in India unfolds. Feel free to drop in you comments.
– Team Thanos