The latest drones attacks on the oil giant Saudi Aramco's facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais have sent the global economy in a tizzy. The attacks knocked out half of the Saudi Arabia's total oil output, and spiked the crude oil prices by nearly 19 per cent in a day. One of the deadliest attacks carried out by Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen involved a fleet of 10 drones.
It have also sent shock waves in India where it seems the level of preparedness to deal with Saudi Aramco-style attacks is far short of what is required. Although the country has a drone policy in place - Drone Regulations 1.0 - that came into force last December, its implementation is still pending.
For instance, the drone regulations allow operators to fly legally after taking clearance. Operators are required to register their drones, pilots and themselves in order to become eligible for flying, and the entire ecosystem has to operate under the Digital Sky Platform. But despite having a drone policy in place, most drones continue to operate under shadows - the way they used to before the policy was formulated.
Drones are used for defence and civil purposes in India; and the number of drones operated by the armed forces and civilian side are unknown. The last estimates in December were around 40,000 civilian drones out of which over 90 per cent were imported. Barring the top five drone operators who will make sure to comply with policies, small-time operators don't care about permissions, and thereby pose a big risk to the critical infrastructure in the country such as power plants, communications services, dams, defence bases, nuclear set-ups and financial services .
"The Digital Sky platform is still partially functional. Under the policy, the entire airspace was supposed to be segregated into red, amber and green zones. None of which has happened. Until we make some headway over there, we will not be able to take constructive decisions on how to manage drones," says an expert working with an international economic body.
While it can be argued that the terrorist activities don't necessarily need drones to attack infrastructure of a country, there are various ways to carry out attacks. Having said that, a fully-functional drones policy is the best way to address and mitigate some of the concerns.
"The ideal way forward to stem the concerns around security is to operationalise Digital Sky, which is a well thought-out proposal. It brought every stakeholder on the same page. It gives a lot more clarity and information to various security agencies. On a digital map, they can spot registered drones, their flight path, and all information about the owner, operator and nature of permit, at any given point in time. That kind of information strengthens the security capabilities significantly," says Anirudh Rastogi, founder of Ikigai Law, a law firm that specialises in technology.
Amid policy uncertainty, there's a silver lining as well. With the policy kick off, the import of drones has also gone down sharply, experts say. Why it is good? Because the policy has made it a lot more difficult to import drones now. A large number of fly-by-night and small-time operators are dependent on imported drones. These people used to import drones under the radar. But to get import permission now, the DGFT (Directorate General of Foreign Trade) wants operators to first take approval from the aviation regulator DGCA (Directorate General of Civil Aviation) who will ask for registration under the Digital Sky platform, which is a tricky affair for such operators.
The lack of push from the government's side - after the formulation of the policy - has been the biggest reason for drones ecosystem to not get formalised. The previous junior civil aviation minister Jayant Sinha was instrumental in finalising the policy, but since his departure, things have been moving quite slow. It seems that India has to cover a lot of ground to defend itself from attacks emanating from the skies.