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Drones in India: A model for cooperative federalism?

Unmanned Aerial Systems - drones - are one technology that has come centre-stage in COVID-19 era. UAVs globally have encountered ambiguity relating to policy and governance, pricing and economics, lack of common knowledge and potential social implications

The adoption of drones for mass good serves as a vital indicator of the robustness of a country’s decision-making system The adoption of drones for mass good serves as a vital indicator of the robustness of a country’s decision-making system
Story highlights
  • • The emerging potential of drones to transform legacy systems and industries is challenged by policy and governance issues, pricing and economics, and a lack of common knowledge
  • • The drone sector in India has shown "cooperative federalism", a collaborative approach between decision-makers, stakeholders and different levels of government, can benefit society's most vulnerable people
  • • Healthcare initiatives involving drones show how emerging technologies can navigate shifting and rapidly changing regulatory systems and demands.

Emerging technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality (AR), blockchain, drones, Internet of Things (IoT), robotics and 3D printing are merging the boundaries between the physical and the digital. Digital interventions in the physical spaces of manufacturing, governance, health and education manifest in productivity improvements, overcoming access barriers and addressing issues arising from constrained resources.

These new technologies share a core characteristic: the potential to transform legacy systems and industries towards more productive, intuitive, interactive, transparent and accountable systems.

Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAVs) - drones - are one technology that has come centre-stage in the COVID-19 era. While being recognised for their transformational impact, the UAVs globally have encountered ambiguity relating to policy and governance, pricing and economics, lack of common knowledge and potential social implications. A minimum enabling infrastructure requires synchronicity between the government, private sector, civil society and end user groups.

Also read: New rules to boost investments in the drones sector

The sector has several moving parts and shifting goalposts triggered by uncontrollable externalities. Any error of judgement or untoward incident can result in repercussions to industry players around the world. When a drone was reported at Gatwick Airport in 2019, for example, there were talks of tightening the ropes on drone policy in many countries. A small event can invoke greater government intervention to regulate. With the involvement of numerous agencies, one cannot escape the 'structural intervention' with the possibility of a governance trap. India's federal structure makes this no less challenging.

Yet the UAV sector has repeatedly demonstrated how a collaborative and coordinated approach between decision-makers and stakeholders can positively impact those at the bottom of the pyramid - the strata of society that does not have access to basic healthcare. India presents a classic opportunity to build a replicable model of federalism that is cooperative, creative, constructive and competitive; a sandbox where states compete not just with each other but also with the Centre. In finding the "sweet spot" as far as policy around drones is concerned, two ongoing programmes are in play - The Medicine from the Sky project, anchored by the Government of Telangana, in southern India, and the BVLOS experimental trials anchored by India's Ministry of Civil Aviation.

Also read: Grene Robotics develops India's 1st autonomous drone defence dome system - 'Indrajaal'

The first programme addresses gaps in India's healthcare distribution system, saving lives of isolated communities while replicating urban grade healthcare in rural areas. As part of this programme, the state of Telangana in partnership with the World Economic Forum, Apollo Hospitals and thinktank NITI Aayog has called on technologists from across the country to demonstrate the capability of drone-based healthcare delivery. The process of clearances from various agencies to experiment with the flying of drones beyond the visual line of sight has been a pragmatic mix of authority coordinated with national agencies, while deferring to local governments to shape deliverables on ground. This has created a distinct pathway through the federal "marble cake" of interrelated policy goals and administrative duties of local, state and national governments. One that is replicable and can be negotiated by other state governments and agencies in the future.

The drone regulations issued in 2018 did not permit cargo delivery or flights beyond the visual line of sight, but the rules issued in early 2021 indicate a departure from the earlier approach. However, this involved significant paperwork and a detailed discourse with multiple agencies to justify the need through a safety and security lens. With urgent drone missions such as Medicine from the Sky looming large, a policy discussion for further liberalisation of the drone rules was set off, thereby opening new avenues for the sector across different use cases.

For state governments to future-proof their healthcare logistics machinery using drones, total alignment with the central government was needed as governance of the country's airspace rests with the centre and not the state. The Telangana experiment is turning this into a science, not just by coordinating with the central government seamlessly but also by mapping stakeholders and their requirements along the way. If one drew a venn diagram of the two most regulated sectors globally - health and aviation - Medicine from the Sky would lie in the overlapping area. As such, success can only be achieved if the projected outcomes indicate mass social impact, bureaucratic intent and faith in emerging technology. All boxes have been checked in the drone sector.

The project presents a light at the end of the tunnel and allows all stakeholders, including regulators to combine efforts. Implementing a project in a space where the regulatory regime continues to evolve proves the efficacy of this cooperative federalism, which is one of the tenets of the government.

Through this route of cooperative federalism, eight consortia of drone operators are set to solve the last (and potentially middle) mile of healthcare logistics. This has led to the formation of an industry group that chalks out conditions for an enabling environment, while building models to optimise the system at large through funding and pilot programmes. On the other hand, the BVLOS experiments are a coordinated approach by the Ministry of Civil Aviation and supporting regulatory agencies to gather data points and build a playbook of scenarios to help build confidence in operating flights beyond the visual range and in the overall capability of platforms that make up India's market.

Also read: 'Mechanisms of warfare changing', says Anand Mahindra on drone attacks

Frequent multi-stakeholder meetings across tiers of government and the private sector, leading to joint action on the ground, has further empowered the sector and set a precedent for other technologies that are on an upward trajectory. Against a backdrop of a quasi-federal structure, drones have navigated a channel of laboratory federalism where several small-scale experiments and exercises have created insights that foster the development of good policy.

We are now on a trajectory that is likely to generate better policy outcomes and have a precedent for nations that are politically decentralised. The seamless support provided by the Centre to the proactive initiatives of Government of Telangana to create a positive impact on society makes for a powerful commentary for the cooperative federalism model - which is not unique to the UAV space alone.

In conclusion, the state has played the role of anchor, with clinical representation from Apollo, an established healthcare service provider in the region; a global platform in the form of the World Economic Forum; and steered by NITI Aayog, which has acted as a synapse in the bureaucratic machinery of the world's largest democracy. The adoption of drones for mass good serves as a vital indicator of the robustness of a country's decision-making system.

From the Civil Aviation Requirements of 2018 and the Drone Ecosystem Policy Roadmap of 2019 to the UAS Rules 2021 - and the soon to be issued Draft Drone Rules 2021 - India has witnessed several landmark policy moments for the sector in India. The regulatory system can be equated to a three-level combination lock. Drones may have knowingly or unknowingly stress-tested it and arriving at a code that could unlock the potential of emerging technologies in the region. As Sir Winston Churchill said: "The difference between mere management and true leadership is communication" - a truth the drone sector validates time and again.

(Anna Roy is Senior Advisor, NITI Aayog, Government of India; and Vignesh Santhanam is India Lead, Drones and Tomorrow's Airspace, World Economic Forum)