COVID air travel bans may continue to frustrate holidaymakers, but in India, the skies are finally opening up for business. Only four months after it was introduced, India has junked a contentious drone policy that made industry compliance virtually impossible. Taking its place is the new Draft Drone Rules 2021.
These proposed regulations will swap a tedious and complex multi-level licensing system with a regime of trust, self-certification, and non-intrusive monitoring. It’s a big step forward. And a pretty bold one too, especially when you consider the hysteria over an alleged weaponized drone attack just days ago.
So, is the government finally admitting that the benefits of drone use outweigh the risks in a major way? Niharika Kolte, founding partner, Drone Tech Solutions, agrees. She tells DroneDJ:
From what I thought was almost a death blow to the drone industry in India, the new draft rules have come as a sigh of relief to all of us. I think this government has really heard our grievances and has done something unimaginable. They have not only repealed the old rules but have also created an environment for the industry to thrive.
Ruchi Saxena, founder, Caerobotics, echoes Niharika’s thoughts while demanding stability in policy:
From an overly complicated process to an overly simplified one, it’s an unbelievable shift in a matter of just a few months. Whatever works for the drone industry as well as government is fine, as long as it stays and we know exactly what lies ahead and can conduct our businesses efficiently.
What’s new in India’s Draft Drone Rules 2021?
Some of the major changes in the new drone rules include:
- No pilot license requirement for nano drones, micro drones (non-commercial use), for and R&D organizations
- Reduction in licensing and certification fees
- Easy process for transfer and deregistration of drones
- No flight permission requirement up to 400 ft in green zones
- Reducing yellow zone from 45 km to 12 km from the airport perimeter
- Eradication of several paper-based approval processes, bringing down the number of forms from 25 to six
- Increase in coverage of drones from 300 kg to 500 kg to accommodate air taxis
For Vipul Singh, cofounder and CEO, Aarav Unmanned Systems, these changes translate into a landmark moment for the Indian drone industry and the country at large. He tells DroneDJ:
These new rules are going to positively propel the growth of the drone ecosystem in India. Innovation, adaption, investments, and jobs – all will increase dramatically. My estimate is that India will become a $2 billion market for drone solutions in the commercial segment within the next two years.
In the meantime, Prem Kumar Vislawath, founder and chief innovator at Marut Drones, draws attention to the fact that the opening up of green zones is good news, not only for the hobbyist flyers, but it will also make it easier for drone service providers to conduct commercial missions easily.
Now it can be safely said that India is well on its way to become the drone hub of the world!
Ankit Mehta, cofounder and CEO, ideaForge Technology, also welcomes the move but is quick to point out that even in the new draft rules, restrictions remain on the import of drones and drone components. He tells us:
These new rules are going to give all the legit manufacturers a lot freedom and leeway for development, testing, and operations. There’s no denying that the policy is revolutionary, business- and innovation-friendly. However, there should be a relook on component import oversights as it limits local manufacturing.
At the same time, a call for a more liberal drone import policy comes from Sumeru Bahuguna, an aerial cinematographer and Director at PhotoIndia, a photography agency. He says:
The new rules definitely are a lot simpler and reduce the paperwork and compliance to be able to fly a drone within the law. This is a welcome step that should be seen as a call to have joint cooperation with the private sector and international consumer drone manufacturers. An underground industry and countless individuals unnecessarily in constant fear are waiting to fly high. Enabling them would only give a boost to local economies across the nation.
Spotlight on drone service providers
We also spoke to Wasim Akhtar, an independent drone industry consultant who has previously worked with the Indian subsidiaries of the world’s top two drone service providers (DSPs), Terra Drone and Aerodyne. He explains that regulatory hiccups have always been the biggest bottleneck for DSPs in India. But with an increase in awareness about the scope and potential of the technology, new avenues are now opening up:
Though India is a huge market for the drone industry, the previous drone policies had a lot of challenges including long approval processes from different government organizations. Most drone operators in India will agree that it has been a tough journey for us in terms of doing business. This is why many startups in this space also failed. But if the new Draft Drone Rules 2021 are finalized into policy, it will provide a huge boost to the startup community.
Interestingly, when India’s civil aviation minister, Jyotiraditya Scindia, took to Twitter to announce the proposed rules, his eyes were also on the startup community:
Drones are bringing the next big tech revolution around the globe with reduced costs, resources, and time taken for operations. It is upon us to ride on the new wave and facilitate its uptake, especially among our startups.
What more can be done?
India’s draft drone rules are increasingly progressive, but they don’t address every concern of the industry. Niharika believes that the government should offer more clarity on the role of DSPs, beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) missions, and confined space inspections. Ruchi also wants the next policy revision to include evidence-based rules for BVLOS missions and medical cargo drones.
Meanwhile, the industry’s attention is also focused on the Digital Sky online platform. The Indian government says it wants to transform Digital Sky into a business-friendly single-window system to foster self-certification for most processes. However, its track record for developing the platform has been far from the best.
Ruchi, who also serves as a director at nonprofit knowledge-sharing network India Flying Labs, quips:
Every policy update talks about Digital Sky and all approvals are centered around it. Once policy stabilizes, the government might see a stronger green signal to roll out a more robust platform, making it open for public use as well.
It’s important to note that the Ministry of Civil Aviation is seeking public comments on the draft rules till August 5, and many of the issues concerning the industry are likely to be brought up for discussion before the final policy is enforced.
Ruchi is positive that the time has come to plan for nationwide adoption of drone technology, especially for social good causes such as health, disaster management, agriculture, and STEM education. However, the need to neutralize any future drone attacks will continue to be important. She concludes:
I hope there’s a plan for controlling the smuggling and sale of unauthorized drones and controlling their use. Meanwhile, our country must invest in anti-drone systems also to assure security, safety, and protection from rogue drones.
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