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A soft start to India's tryst with drones

In India, the drone policy presents a huge opportunity for both private and government sectors.

twitter-logoManu Kaushik | August 28, 2018 | Updated 22:23 IST
A soft start to India's tryst with drones

Nearly four years after banning the use of drones - or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) - in the Indian airspace, the government has given a go-ahead for their commercial use. Though their use will be restricted until the government prepares more comprehensive guidelines, drones kicks off a new era where the delivery of goods, monitoring and surveillance is expected to get a major leg-up.

So far, the use cases of drones are restricted to areas like agriculture, forestry, power supply, geographical mapping, defence, e-commerce and film shooting, experts argue that more use cases are going to emerge over a period of time. Considering that civilian drones are fairly new, it seems that India has taken a lead in coming up with its own drone policy.

The drone ecosystem in countries like US and China has been fast evolving. For instance, there's a fight going on between hobbyists and large corporations like Google and Amazon on the usage of drones. Google, which has a drone programme Project Wing, is sceptical of the small-time drone operators as they might interfere with its autonomous delivery systems. Google and Amazon (through its programme Prime Air) are currently doing actual testing of drones for the delivery of payloads.

Much like the Indian guidelines, the US laws restrict the use of drones beyond 400 feet, and the flights outside the vision of an operator on the ground and over humans are not permitted. However, Google has been given some waivers by the nodal agency FAA (Federation of Aviation Administration) to conduct its test flights. China, on the other hand, is working on drones that can carry cargo equivalent of a sports car.

In India, the drone policy presents a huge opportunity for both private and government sectors. For private corporations, especially e-commerce players, the drones can result in efficient delivery of goods in a much shorter time. But as the usage of drones soars, especially this is just a beginning and the government itself is talking about the setting up a task force to deal with more complex subjects related to drones, the potential safety risks also grow manifold.

Last year, Amazon had filed for patents with the Indian authorities for exclusive rights on multi-scale fiducials, black and white marks on any object for the autonomous aerial vehicles to identify them from distances. However, Amazon might have to wait until the task force allows autonomous drones that can fly beyond the visual line-of-sight of the operator.

The policy also mentions about setting up of a one-stop shop - Digital Sky Platform - that is expected to facilitate registration and licensing of drones and operators in addition to giving instant (online) clearances to operators for every flight. This platform will be connected to local police, defence and civilian air traffic controllers to ensure that drones are adhering to safety rules. This means that the government will urgently require manpower with the necessary skills across all these functions to enforce regulations.

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