Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or drones emerged as a significant dual-use technology during the late twentieth century. These systems were initially developed and used exclusively for military purposes. However, advancement in technology and easy availability of UAVs have rendered a wide array of civilian applications as well.
In recent times, the integration of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and advanced sensors with unmanned systems has further enhanced their capabilities without any human intervention. Due to their high mobility, deployability, and low purchasing and maintenance costs, UAVs are being used for real-time data collection, remote sensing, communication, delivery services, surveying, land mapping, traffic monitoring, surveillance and security by law-enforcement agencies (LEAs), precision agriculture, search and rescue, natural resource monitoring, photography, and recreational purposes in the civil sector.
With the growing number of civil applications and increased investments in the research development of unmanned systems, the global UAVs market has marked a rapid growth in the last two decades. A report published by ResearchandMarkets.com estimates that the market will reach $27.4 billion in 2021 and is expected to cross $58 billion by 2026. This unprecedented surge in the commercialisation of unmanned systems and their civil applications necessitate the adoption of serious regulatory measures at the national level by states to regulate, control, and monitor the usage of these systems.
Pakistan is also an emerging market for both drone manufacturers as well as users. Earlier this year, Adviser to the Minister of Science and Technology on Projects Hamza Haroon stated that with a comprehensive policy and regularization of local development, Pakistan can easily have a share of $600-700 million in the global UAV market.
Realising the benefits offered by drone technology beyond the military sector, the government of Pakistan, in March 2021, instituted an authority called the Civil Drone Regulatory Authority (CDRA) aimed at formulating policies and frameworks to formalise local manufacturing of drones and to regulate their applications in the civil sector. The establishment of the CDRA is an important milestone in regularising and regulating the applications of drones in the civil domain. However, the authority is confronted with various challenges in the development of a drone regulatory framework, which needs to be addressed at the national level with all stakeholders on the same page.
The first and most complicated challenge in regulating civil UAVs is an inclusive integration of these drones into the existing air traffic management system. With the technology becoming more sophisticated and more available, the number of drones flying in Pakistan, for different purposes, is on the rise each passing day. This increase in drone flights would pose some serious issues to air traffic service providers in the future because existing air traffic systems cater to traditional point-to-point flying manned systems only.
This is especially concerning since drones are very different from manned aircraft in various characteristics including size, frequency and the altitude of flights, payload, performance parameters, endurance, certification standards, and most importantly, the operating environment. Though the Pakistan Civil Aviation Authority (PCAA) has issued some temporary guidelines for civil drone flights, the CDRA needs to deal with this challenge in a comprehensive manner considering both short-term and long-term requirements of modern air traffic management systems accommodating drones as well.
The second major challenge in regulating drones is the development of a comprehensive licensing and authorisation mechanism for civil UAVs. The foremost prerequisite of this mechanism is to have precise definitions and discrete classification of UAVs flying in a civil operating environment. Without clear definitions and classification, the registration of UAVs for licensing and authorisation will be a daunting and complex task.
Unfortunately, there exists no globally accepted definition as well as any standard classification of drones in the world currently. The CDRA needs to define UAVs and provide guidelines vis-a-vis their classification to regulate their use. Moreover, the CDRA, in collaboration with the PCAA, also needs to set standards for the licensing and authorisation of both drone manufacturers as well as operators.
The third important challenge in framing a drone regulatory framework is the provision of guidelines for the safety of other aircraft flying in the airspace and the ground infrastructure. Currently, there is no efficient and economical collision prevention system available for the detection and identification of non-transponder-equipped aircraft flying in airspace. Similarly, there is no such model available in the world, successfully implemented by any state, to avoid the collision of UAVs with another flying object as well as ground infrastructure and to impose liability costs for any damage.
The fourth critical challenge in regulating drones is the development of rules and regulations for drone operators regarding the security of critical infrastructure and sensitive installations. A small drone can easily carry an explosive payload to hit any target or cameras to photograph sensitive infrastructure. Thus, small drones can be the ideal tools or weapons for terrorists. Owing to the volatile security situation in the region, the formulation of security-related rules for drone operators must be a priority in the drone regulatory framework.
With the technology becoming cheaper and easily available, the proliferation of drones and expansion of their applications for civil use is inevitable. Airspace management, even for manned aircraft, has remained a complicated task in both peace and war times. Furthermore, regulating the use of drones is a far more complex challenge because of the multiple stakeholders involved — with profoundly diverse interests in this process.
Pakistan, and more specifically the CDRA, needs to come up with comprehensive, holistic and inclusive solutions and regulatory mechanisms to cope with these challenges considering the inputs from all relevant ministries, institutions, and the commercial sector. The sooner this is done, the better.
The writer is a researcher at the Centre for Aerospace & Security Studies (CASS), Islamabad. He can be reached at:[email protected]