Vishal Singh and Suhas Banshiwala had a particularly bright idea in 2013. They planned to use the then emerging drone technology for commercial applications such as carrying out land surveys. Their company, Aarav Unmanned Systems, which entered commercial operations in 2015, was only the second commercial drone company in the world. It has done well in the past six years, bagging contracts worth $4.5 million (around Rs 34 crore) from the public and private sectors. Aarav has an inventory of 40 drones right now and by next month will have augmented its fleet to 150 drones.
Vishal and Suhas were among several entrepreneurs of this nascent industry who were in a state of alarm when alleged Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists used two drones to drop bombs on the Jammu air force base on June 26. There were no casualties in the attack, but days later, the government banned drone flying in Srinagar with the administration asking owners to deposit all private drones at the police stations. FICCI estimates the drone industry in India to be worth $800 million (almost Rs 6,000 crore) and projected to grow to $40 billion (Rs 3 lakh crore) by 2030. Entrepreneurs had feared an era of tighter controls. The government, instead, went in the opposite direction. On July 14, it eased the Draft Drone Rules, giving in to many of the demands raised by the industry.
Thus the number of permissions required to operate or manufacture drones has been slashed. Most of the equipment requirements and operational restrictions are also a thing of the past. Earlier, all drones except those in the Nano category had to be equipped with a raft of technologies that at times made them unviable to operate. These included flashing anti-collision strobe lights, flight data logging capability, a secondary surveillance radar transponder, a real-time tracking system and a 360-degree collision avoidance system. Even Nano drones were required to have a Global Navigation Satellite System, Autonomous Flight Termination System (or Return to Home option), geo-fencing capability and flight controller. These requirements have now been replaced with safety features like ‘no permission, no take-off (NPNT)’, real-time tracking beacons and geo-fencing, all of which are to be notified in the future.
Crucially, the penalties imposed for violations under the UAS (Unmanned Aircraft Systems) Rules, 2021 have been drastically reduced in the draft Drone Rules from Rs 1.5 crore to just Rs 1 lakh (see box). The government’s move in this direction is indicative of the heft the drone sector has acquired—by way of its potential in applications and market growth—over the past few years. India is the world’s fastest growing drone market, according to some studies. Aarav, for instance, is part of Swamitva, or the village surveying work, of the Union government, in Karnataka, UP, Uttarakhand, Maharashtra and Rajasthan. Their other clients include Tata, Hindalco, Coal India and NTPC.
Since they were introduced around a decade ago, drones have become integral to at least 20 Indian industries. They map land holdings, are used to deliver medicines to remote areas, map the progress of infrastructure construction in the railways, telecom, power, oil and gas and land records and private security.
The draft rules are significantly more lenient than the UAS Rules, 2021 announced on March 12, 2021. Those have now been repealed. The draft rules are also the third piece of legislation since December 1, 2018, brought in to regulate the sector. So, how are the new proposed rules different from the version in March? Well, for one, they have been welcomed by industry stakeholders. “That a new set of rules were notified despite the Jammu attacks suggests the government is keen to clear a path for India to become a world leader in the drone sector,” says Smit Shah, director of the Drone Federation of India (DFI), an industry body representing 200 drone companies and 2,000 drone pilots.
Indeed, even as the drone sector was panicking, the Union government had attempted to allay fears after the Jammu incident. “Drones are the future of aviation, logistics, surveillance and warfare. The government will continue to give full support to the drone ecosystem,” Amber Dubey, joint secretary, ministry of civil aviation and head, drones division, had said then. He justified his statement, saying that “criminals too use mobiles and cars. One doesn’t shut down the manufacturing of cars and mobiles after a crime but improve our intelligence and redouble efforts to counter such incidents. The government has worked out liberalised drone rules that will help our home-grown drone start-ups, researchers and operators. Our world-class counter-drone systems will also be developed by these very same Indians,” he adds.
“The new rules are encouraging and positive. That the government continues the mandate for reforms as demanded by the drone sector and did not react to the Jammu attacks in a knee-jerk fashion is commendable,” says Vipul. “The draft rules acknowledge that to counter the threat of drones we need to understand the technology around them,” he added.
While the sector has supported the move, some sticky points remain. “The Directorate General of Foreign Trade (DGFT), which issues permissions for the import of drones and drone components, and the Quality Council of India (QCI), which handles certification, should work in a time-bound manner,” says Vipul. Other issues include the export criteria and providing a clause for test sites for drones that would help in R&D. Also, standards and rules applicable to Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) operations and Visual Line of Sight Operations (VLOS) need segregation. Vipul also feels that the draft rules are too lenient on certain points. “They allow micro drones to be operated by untrained people for recreational purposes. If so, it should provide designated sites for recreational flying,” he says. Finally, the digital sky platform on which the implementation of the rules depends should be made fully functional. The Union government has invited objections and suggestions to the draft rules till August 5. After they are considered, the rules could be notified by August 15. Is this the much-needed boost that will help India’s drone sector soar? The industry’s reaction seems to suggest so.
Graphic by Tanmoy Chakraborty