What is our level of preparedness in infrastructure, and where do we stand in terms of the drone ecosystem?
India is on the path to having the world's leading drone ecosystem. I came to the aviation ministry about two-and-a-half years ago. That time, there had been a number of discussions but there was no formal drone policy. It was not that people were not using drones. Even then, if you went to a wedding, you would see people using drones for photography. People were making ads using drones. There was surveillance, too. It was clear that this was going to be a huge industry because of the range of possible applications. We had a series of meetings with security agencies, home ministry, Air Force, other stakeholders, and on the basis of that, as well as a number of discussions with regulators around the world, formulated the draft civil aviation regulations. We called them Drone 1.0. Even as we put out those in the public domain, we recognised that they were restrictive. Nonetheless, it was important to take the first step.
Even in Drone 1.0, we have implemented a number of innovative steps. We have done comprehensive categorisation of drones - from nano drones onwards - consistent with the rest of the world. Then, we have mandated licences for drone pilot, operator and the drone itself. Everybody has to be registered. We have automated approval for flights. There's a no-permission no-takeoff system, which has not been put in place anywhere else in the world. Even as Drone 1.0 was being formulated, we asked the drone task force to get inputs for Drone 2.0. We will release Draft Regulations 2.0 in mid-January. For drones, you have to cross three thresholds. One is permission for BVLOS flights. Two is having payloads. Three is automating air traffic management to the extent possible. We are working on all these right now.
Even in the cities...
There will be at least three use cases. One is delivery within a city. One example is organ transport. We have already received requests for transporting organs using drones. We might allow this within a city. You can have a hospital with a drone port on its roof, you can have another hospital with another port, and then we can create drone corridors to carry the organ so that we don't have to set up green corridors on roads. People are already experimenting. Zipline in Rwanda is experimenting with medical supplies and organ transport. The second use case is surveillance. The surveillance is more for terrain mapping. The third is agriculture. For example, what regulations do we need so that people can build a drone fleet and [a farmer] can ask them to fertilise [his farms].
There's tremendous interest from countries such as Israel, France and the US for collaboration to push boundaries and establish these regulations.
When is Drone 2.0 coming into effect?
We will try and issue the draft regulations by mid-January. The draft will be out for public consultations. We will see what inputs we get.
In the forseeable future, don't you expect Amazon to deliver goods using drones?
It's possible even under Drone 1.0, but requires case-by-case approval. In the future, whether we will permit delivery for Amazon or anybody else will depend on how their application or use case comes up. The case you are talking about is completely flexible as they go from a warehouse to somebody's house to deliver products. That's a lot more complicated because that gives you complete freedom to go anywhere in densely populated areas. That may be Drone 3.0.
What kind of back-end will this require if it has to be automated?
There are a number of software providers that are working on this kind of automated air traffic management. Once we can establish the legal framework, we can talk to them to see whose software we should use for this automation. There are several players that are working on establishing the ability to control many drones in an automated way. That's the whole idea of Digital Sky.
What about punitive action for drone violations?
Those are specified in Drone 1.0 regulations. Obviously, their licences can go.
What kind of investments do you foresee in the sector?
Globally, it's a substantial market. Given the range of applications, our hope is that there will be thousands of crores of investments by equipment manufacturers and drone software and service providers. With India having world-leading regulations, you would expect development of drones and applications here for export around the world.
Will existing drones require permission to fly under the new regulations?
Anything above a nano-drone will have to be registered and require permissions.
You had a meeting with the Uber Elevate team?
That I would classify as Drone 3.0. Uber is confident that it will be able to transport passengers on drones within a few years. They are confident that they will be able to do it at an affordable price point. There is a reason to believe that they have developed the underlying technology systems. Technology is largely already there. It may take two-three years to perfect it. We are creating regulations to enable this. As I keep saying, we are going to go from autorickshaws to airrickshaws. Given our traffic situation, we need all those alternatives.