The Ministry of Civil Aviation, Government of India, vide notification dated August 25, 2021, has issued the new Drone Rules, 2021 (“Drone Rules”) in supersession of the Unmanned Aircraft System Rules, 2021 (“UAS Rules”). Interestingly, the UAS Rules came into effect on March 15, 2021 after over 9 months of deliberation but were shortly put under public consultation for all stakeholders, after which the draft of Drone Rules were published on July 15, 2021.
Now in force, the Drone Rules seek to govern all persons owning, possessing or engaged in leasing, operating, transferring or maintaining an unmanned aircraft system (“UAS”) in India except UAS used by the Indian naval, military or air forces. Taking inspiration from the UAS Rules, the Drone Rules classify a UAS basis the maximum all-up weight including payload which helps differentiate the kind of approvals and licenses its usage would require –
- Nano UAS: Less than or equal to 250 grams;
- Micro UAS: Greater than 250 grams and less than or equal to 2 kg;
- Small UAS: Greater than 2 kg and less than or equal to 25 kg;
- Medium UAS: Greater than 25 kg and less than or equal to 150 kg; and
- Large UAS: Greater than 150 kg.
Keeping in mind the above classification, some of the important regulatory aspects delivered by the Drone Rules are summarized below –
- Digital Sky Platform: Newly introduced, the Digital Sky Platform (DSP) has been established to provide a comprehensive online gateway for all necessary permission and information for those operating a UAS. The DSP is hoped become a user friendly single window system wherein most permissions required would be self-generated to limit human intervention.
- Type Certification: Rule 8 of the Drone Rules require all persons operating a UAS to obtain a type certificate with the exception of those manufacturing, importing a UAS, or any person operating models of remotely piloted aircraft system or Nano UAS. A Type Certificate may be procured by filing form D1 and fee of INR 100.
- Space map and Zonal restriction: Importantly, the Drone Rules revise the space map which enlists the bounds of ‘green’, ‘yellow’ and ‘red’ zones.
- Red Zone: Airspace notified by the Central Government including areas beyond the territorial waters of India;
- Yellow Zone: The airspace above 400 feet or 120 metre in the designated green zone and the airspace above 200 feet or 60 metre in the area located between the lateral distance of 8 kilometre and 12 kilometre from the perimeter of an operational airport.
- Green Zone: The airspace of up to vertical distance of 400 feet or 120 meters (which is not a red or yellow zone) and airspace up to a vertical distance of 200 feet or 60 metre above the area located between a lateral distance of 8 kilometer and 12 kilometer from the perimeter of an operational airport.
Although no prior permission is required for operating a UAS in the Green Zone, prior permission is necessary to operate UAS in the yellow and red zone. Failure to obtain such permission would constitute a cognizable and non-compoundable offence. Additionally under Rule 19, the Central Government is expected to publish an airspace map for UAS operations segregating the entire airspace of India into red zone, yellow zone and green zone, with a horizontal resolution. It is further expected that the said map would be programmatically accessible so that the operator of the UAS can plot their proposed flight plan in order to ascertain whether any prior approval is required or not.
- Unique Identification Number: All persons owning a UAS (whether manufactured in India or otherwise) on or before November 30, 2021, are required to make an application to obtain a unique identification number by filing Form D2 and a fee of INR 100. In order to obtain such number, the DSP is required to ensure that the applicant has a valid Drone Acknowledgement Number (issued by DSP), Goods and Service Tax paid invoice and is part of the UAS list published on the DSP.
- Remote Pilot License: Under Rule 33 no person other that a holder of a valid ‘remote pilot license’ enlisted on the DSP would be permitted to operate a UAS in India. Moreover, an individual shall only be eligible of such license if they are between the age of 18 and 65, passed the Class 10th examination, and has successfully completed the training specified by the Director General of Civil Aviation from any ‘authorised remote pilot training organisation’. It is only upon completion of training from such organization that an individual, within 7 days of passing of the tests, can obtain the Remote Pilot License by filing form D4 with a fee of INR 1,000. The said license shall be valid for a period of ten years. Importantly, no such license is required for operation of a Nano or Micro UAS operated for non-commercial purposes.
- Insurance: The Drone Rules have maintained the requirement of obtaining a third-party insurance originally stipulated under the UAS Rules for the operation of drones and compensation in case of damage to life or property caused by such UAS. Notably, a Nano UAS may operate without such coverage. Interestingly, the Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority, earlier this year, had urged all general insurance providers to offer insurance for Remotely Piloted Aircraft System/ Drones under aviation insurance following which, prominent insurance providers of India have taken the initiative.
- UAS for research, development and testing: The Drone Rules also adopt the earlier exemption provided to any UAS operated for any research and development under the control of the Government, educational institutions, start-ups recognised by the Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade (DPIIT), authorised testing entity or any manufacturer of a UAS having a goods and service tax identification number. The above-mentioned entities are exempted from procuring a type certificate, unique identification no, prior permission, and remote pilot licence discussed above. However, such entities may only seek such exemption if the operation of the UAS take place within the green zone and within the premises of the person wherein the research, development and testing is being conducted.
- Offences and Penalties:
Significant prohibitions enlisted under the Drone Rules are:
- No person shall carry any arms, ammunitions, munitions of war, implements of war, explosives and military stores through UAS, without the written permission of the Government of India (cognizable and non-compoundable offence);
- No person shall carry any dangerous goods through UAS; or
- No person shall violate the right of way of a manned aircraft.
The Drone Rules also streamline the penalties levied on individuals and organisations operating a UAS. Rule 50 levies a maximum penalty of INR 100,000 in the event any operator fails to comply with the provisions of the Drone Rules. Previously, the UAS Rules enumerated different quantum of penalties for different offences and each such penalty was accordingly identified; however, such categorisation of penalties has now been done away with.
Conclusion The UAS Rules provided for a complex regulatory mechanism which contained over 25 different types of permissions which are now streamlined and condensed into 5 under the Drone Rules. For example, previously, each UAS operator was required to obtain different levels of permit depending upon the class of the UAS, however, the said bifurcation has now been abolished. The Drone Rules, unlike the UAS Rules, do not adopt certain safety features like ‘No permission – no takeoff’ (NPNT) and real-time tracking beacon, however it is expected that the same would be notified by the Central Government subsequently. It is further expected that the Government would be issuing Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) and Training Procedure Manuals (TPM) by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation on the digital sky platform for self-monitoring by operators. The Central Government is also looking to relax restriction on carrying of Nano UAS on domestic flights in India, which is currently prohibited. Given that drones are now instrumental in almost all industries including agriculture, information technology and transportation, the Drone Rules could enable non-intrusive monitoring and a self-regulatory mechanism for all kinds of operators of UAS in India.