With the advent of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) or popularly known as Drones, we can observe a significant advancement in the field of technology. Earlier, the usage of drones was limited to the defence sector only, however, after its introduction in the commercial industry it has simplified the complex tasks without enduring massive costs which otherwise would have been invested in huge machinery, infrastructural facilities and other time-consuming processes.
Drones have a broad spectrum of applications which are now being utilised to their full potential in various sectors such as security and surveillance sector to ensure border security and traffic management processes, agricultural sector by identifying factors such as the content of moisture or the availability of nutrient soil, infrastructure and engineering industry by providing timely update on the ongoing projects and oversee the current infrastructure such as dams, bridges and the areas affected due to natural disasters. However, with the rapidly increasing usage of drones, it is accompanied by its own set of legal complexities as far as drone laws are concerned.
The first instance which caught sight of the public was in 2014, where a Mumbai based pizzeria delivered a pizza using a drone. However, a ban was imposed by the police authorities as there was no legal framework as far as the operation of a drone is concerned. This was altogether a new field where there were no guidelines in force or protocols formulated by the relevant authorities and posed a grave danger to the security of the nation as the question of privacy came into the picture.
To address the issue of privacy at a large scale, the closest parallel that can be drawn is the application of Article 21, which includes the Right to Privacy. However, such existing laws would be difficult to implement as far as drone cases are concerned. Despite the guidelines being issued by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), the issue of privacy is not adequately dealt with as the wording appears to be vague and ambiguous which fails to acknowledge the gravity of the problem of privacy at hand. The government soon needs to act upon and come up with a set of comprehensive laws which deals with the issue of confidentiality otherwise the results of a breach of privacy would be catastrophic for the security of the nation as a whole.
Later in 2018, the government of India introduced a national drone policy to reduce the complexities in the system. The authority which was made responsible for the regulation of drone laws in India was conferred upon the directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) which has its own set of guidelines/rules which needs to be complied by every drone pilot in India.
Drones come in all shapes and sizes and can be utilised for both civil and defence purposes. For regulatory purposes and determining the extent of its application, the DGCA has categorised drones into five categories:
- Nano: Less than or equal to 250 grams
- Micro: From 250 grams to 2kg
- Small: From 2kg to 25kg
- Medium:From 25kg to 150kg
- Large: Greater than 150kg
Except for the Nano drones, all the other drones need to be successfully registered for its operation in India upon which the owners will receive a unique identification number (UIN) issued by the DGCA. In addition to this, a permit called Unmanned Aircraft Operator Permit (UAOP) needs to be obtained by the owners of the drone which will be issued by the DGCA within seven working days after submitting all the necessary documents. However, in certain conditions, the permit is not required where a nano drone is operating less than 50 feet in uncontrolled airspace or where a micro drone is operating below 200 feet in uncontrolled airspace.
However, the local police authorities need to be informed of the same 24 hours before the operation, or the drones are operated by the Central Intelligence Agencies, Aviation Research Centre or National Technical Research Organisation upon informing the local police authorities. These permits are applicable for five years and are not transferable under any circumstance.
Operating a drone is not as difficult as it sounds; however, there is a long list of guidelines which needs to be complied with before one can take the drone and operate it into the airspace. The Digital Sky Platform is one of a unique unmanned traffic management (UTM) system which helps in enabling the registration and licensing of drones providing instant online clearances which facilitates the operators for a smooth flight. Hence, all the drone operations require prior approval by the Digital Sky Platform.
In addition to this, the government of India also opted for No Permission- No Take-off (NPNT)clause where the drones need to be configured with a particular software/hardware in such a manner that before every flight the owner requires prior permission from the Digital Sky Platform. However, practically speaking, many companies, including both online and offline markets, do not even meet the NPNT clause. The drone owners also need to conform with a valid third-party insurance policy so that the liability can be determined that may arise on account of any mishap or damage caused by the operation of such drones. However, it is challenging to decide on the legal liability as the primary step in determining the legal liability would involve the ascertainment of the fact that whether the drone was handled negligently, or the device malfunctioned.
To improve drone regulation and accountability, the operation of the UAVs has been broadly classified into three zones. It is only allowed to operate during the daytime and within the ‘visual line of sight’. There are certain specified areas which are marked as “No Fly Zones” also known as red zones such as international borders, airports, military installations, Vijay Chowk in New Delhi and the State Secretariat Complex in State Capitals. This is done to ensure the safety and the efficiency of the aircraft operations. The yellow zone will be marked as ‘controlled airspace’ where the owner of the drone needs to file a flight plan and obtain a clearance certificate from the air defence. Lastly, the green zone which is marked as ‘uncontrolled airspace’.
Later in 2019, the Ministry of Civil Aviation released the Drone Policy 2.0, which primarily focused on the relaxation of the existing policies introduced by the Government of India. The system would provide a platform for foreign investors to invest in India, which in turn would be beneficial for the UAV sector in India. The combined efforts from both the Indian government and the foreign direct investors would not only provide a pathway for the evolution of the drone sector in India. Still, they would also end up creating thousands of job opportunities and career options for youngsters in various departments.
As far as the global standards are concerned, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) a specialised agency of the United Nations has laid down recommended practices and procedures for both the national and international air navigation to ensure safety standards and progressive growth in the UAV sector. India is an enormous market for scientific and commercial drone application along with adequate technical expertise required to back the project.
An overall consensus within the government and the private sector to use this technology for the public domain is driven by the cost of operation, data quality, ease of data collection and repeatability. Therefore, India could be on the receiving end of numerous benefits if the regulations for drone operations are streamlined and simplified to obtain the necessary clearances for safe and effective use.
The UAV sector is experiencing rapid growth in the commercial industry in India. However, there are particular challenges/questions posed in terms of ethics, regulation and implementation of the policies which needs a thorough explanation keeping in mind the legal obligations and moral principles. There are certain loopholes/gaps in the existing provisions which need to be rectified at the earliest for the effective governance and better management of the UAVs in India.
The advent of drones could be considered a game-changing innovation for both consumers and organisations. India could be regarded as the next drone hub in the coming years; however, the guidelines drafted would not be sufficient to match the rate of progress. There should be a comprehensive set of laws which would define the rules more concretely. All the circulars and the guidelines which are issued by the government of India and agencies like ICAO should be converted in a cohesive piece of legislation. They should be legally binding at all stages and place all sorts of obligations in case there is a breach. These standards and norms would be a key feature in the effective implementation and compliance of the drone regulations in India.