“A lot of things have changed, and the regulations will certainly help us,” he said.
Nayak is among thousands of drone pilots and hobbyist drone users whose hopes of flying and racing their drones have been rekindled with the implementation of India’s Drone Rules 2021.
The new rules announced last week gave enthusiasts such as Nayak several reasons to be happy. Drone racers, for one, typically assemble their drones. Unlike hobbyist or commercial drones, racing drones fly only a few feet above the ground, but at speeds of 120kmph or more. Ready-to-fly drones can also be bought from global vendors such as DJI and Parrot. Some, however , prefer to build their drones.
The top drone racers in India are usually students of robotics and engineering who prefer to assemble their drones. The new policy relaxes and even removes some of the hurdles they faced in pursuing those ambitions.
Drone racers currently go to local hobbyist stores to acquire parts. These stores, in turn, have relationships with Chinese manufacturers for importing equipment such as drones, motors, flight controllers, first-person-view goggles to make a customized drone.
The new rules have placed such imports under the Directorate General of Foreign Trade (DGFT), which many expect will reduce restrictions and possibly, even import duties.
Earlier, both the DGFT and the Directorate General of Civil Aviation were involved.
Another clause says no type certificate will be required to either manufacture, research or import nano and micro drones.
Type certificates define the model type of a drone — model aircraft, autonomous, etc. They also define weight categories such as nano and micro drones. For example, racing drones come under model aircraft and nano drones, requiring no certification or physical inspection.
The earlier rules used a term called “airworthiness”, which in aviation terminology defines the safety standard of an aircraft, which has now been removed.
Earlier, budding drone racers would also need to seek permission from the local police to fly their drones for practice, as would colleges and educational institutions that wanted to host drone racing events.
The new rules also do not require nano and micro-drone flyers to get type certification. The ‘No Permission, No Takeoff’ policies have also been discontinued.
The new rules also provide an aerospace map with green, yellow and red zones for flying drones.
Racing drones, which usually fall in the nano and micro category, do not require any permission to fly in the green zone, said Nayak.
The colour-coded zones are based on conditions such as proximity to airports, ports and other no-fly zones, and the maximum altitude at which a drone can fly.
Karan Kamdar, chief executive officer of drone manufacturing company 1 Martian Way and founder of the Indian Drone Racing League (IDRL), believes that the new rules will enable holding more drone racing events in the country and help drone racers import parts and equipment.
IDRL has partnered with colleges such as BITS Pilani and the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) in the past, and Kamdar acknowledged that acquiring the right licences did pose a challenge.
Micro-drones will still need permission to fly in yellow and red zones, but racers won’t need to approach the local police to seek those permissions. In addition, the yellow zone, which was earlier set at 45km from an airport perimeter, has now been reduced to 12km. The green zone is “supposed to be” over three-fourths of the country, said Mrinal Pai, co-founder of Skylark Drones, a drone platform company. Pai said that the new policy also suggests that the process of procuring a unique registration number (UIN) necessary to register a drone in India will also be simpler.
Kamdar said there are “hundreds and thousands” of drone pilots in India. He started IDRL around 2015, and the community has grown to more than 3,000 pilots, from around 800 in 2018. IDRL has hosted 88 drone racing events across the country, though it faced the impact of the pandemic in 2020.
According to Polaris Market Research, the global drone racing market was valued at $411.8 million in 2019 and is expected to record an annual average growth rate of 22.1%.
To be sure, industry stakeholders are cautious about the implementation of the new drone rules.
Kamdar, through software lobby group Nasscom, sought for age restrictions for flying drones to be lowered to less than 18 years—which hasn’t been done. US-based Drone Racing League, an organization similar to IDRL, dropped the age restrictions for applications to 16 in 2018.
Further, both Kamdar and Pai noted that the publication of an unmanned air system traffic management (UTM) is pending, too. “For within line-of-sight operations, UTM essentially means an alternate digital sky, and is important,” said Pai. It will help drone pilots ascertain where to fly, where not to fly, get flying certificates, insurance and more.
The industry is also hoping that clearances required from the Wireless Planning and Coordination Wing of the Department of Telecommunications, which was a big hurdle earlier, will be removed as well.
For now, though, drone racing is back in the game.
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