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Drones: The New Frontier

"Drones are about to open up a completely new dimension in application areas as diverse as photography, delivery and security."

Illustration by Siddhant Jumde Illustration by Siddhant Jumde

Indian entrepreneurs have excelled at frugal innovation. India's businesses solve hard consumer problems using technology superbly well and now define the global productivity frontier for mass services. Take mobile data networks and the BHIM app for example. As a result of this, India has become the ideal laboratory for figuring out how to serve consumers in the fast-growing developing world - the 'Next Six Billion' as they are called.

A vast and intriguing new market has emerged - drone technology and drone-driven applications. Research reports have estimated that the drone-driven market globally will soon be more than $10 billion. In India, various experts have estimated that market opportunities could soon exceed thousands of crores.

Drones can revolutionise agriculture and assist significantly in achieving the goal of doubling farmer incomes. They can be used to study farms through specialised imaging, and recommend appropriate interventions. They can help farmers cut their input costs through precision agriculture - applying expensive fertilisers and pesticides only where needed. They can also be used by insurance firms to quickly survey and assess the extent of crop damage digitally.

Another area of opportunity is e-commerce. Delivery and pick-up of goods by drones can add another dimension by increasing the viability of many-to-many commerce. Facilitating drone delivery will require setting up an entirely new logistics infrastructure. New, practical and socially-useful use-cases like delivery of medicines, or indeed blood, can be made possible by drones. Many of these use-cases will emerge as regulations evolve.

From Make in India drone manufacturing to serving Indian consumers and industry, drones will create new, specialised jobs as well - drone pilots, digital air traffic managers, drone-port operators, fleet managers, drone manufacturers, maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) engineers, and others.

Policy and Regulatory Roadmap

Regulations play a critical role in creating and shaping new markets. An important aspect of the regulatory rule-making process, especially in cases of fast-evolving new technologies, is to allow safe-zones for experimentation. As of December 1, 2018, the Ministry of Civil Aviation has brought into effect its new policy on Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and announced DigitalSky, an Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) platform.

These regulations have been developed methodically and carefully so that we can establish a world-leading drone ecosystem. To that end, we sought to formulate drone regulations that would permit, with appropriate safeguards, their commercial application. The preparation of these drone regulations through a Civil Aviation Requirement has taken multiple years because:

  • Drone technologies have been evolving rapidly.
  • Many countries are still experimenting with their drone regulations and no International Civil Aviation Organization standards have yet been developed.
  • And India's security environment necessitates extra precautions.

Instead of simply digitising a paper-based process for registering and operating drones, we are preparing an all-digital process to enable drone flights. The DigitalSky platform is a first-of-its-kind national UTM platform that implements "no permission, no takeoff" (NPNT). Users will be required to do a one-time registration of their drones, pilots, and owners. For every flight (exempted for the nano category), users will have to seek permission to fly on a mobile app. An automated process will then either permit or deny the request in a time-bound manner. To prevent unauthorised flights and to ensure public safety, a drone without a digital permit will simply not be able to takeoff. The UTM operates as a traffic regulator in the drone airspace and coordinates closely with the defense and civilian air traffic controllers (ATCs) to ensure that drones remain on approved flight paths.

New technologies bring with them new challenges. With drones, privacy, safety and security are three key challenges that need to be addressed. The creation of India's drone policy has benefitted from multiple stakeholder engagements, with industry and security agencies, and many drone security management demonstrations as well. Requirements and resolutions will continue to evolve, so the policy framework will have to be dynamic and iterative. The current regulations should therefore be viewed as Drone Regulations 1.0.

The world for such emerging technology is flat; technology-based ecosystems are global not local. New technology offers a chance to develop a new set of standards, which, if set at a global scale, offer massive scope for standardisation and help focus research and development efforts. With our new Drone 1.0 regulations, India can take the lead in working with regulators and industry players globally. We are also evaluating whether we can (similar to the International Solar Alliance) establish a Global Drone Alliance.

India is already on its way to considering its Drone 2.0 regulations which could potentially allow payloads, beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) operations and autonomy (drone swarms which means a pilot can handle multiple drones simultaneously). These new regulations can open up many new use cases including, for example, organ transfer across hospitals through "green corridors" in the air.

Drone technologies can drive the development of many new industries, whose evolution can be shaped through policy roadmap and progressive regulations. As India-specific use cases develop, as affordable solutions proliferate, and as we start to manufacture low-cost drones, our drone ecosystem will take off and surely lead the world.

The writer is Minister of State for Civil Aviation

Views expressed are personal