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Regulations And Indigenous Tracking Solutions Will Ensure Safe Drones In India

While drone operations in any form have been banned in India since 2014, the drones that we see all around us are either imported or smuggled in from foreign countries, mainly China

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The White drones are seen all around us today from Newspaper articles, Indian weddings, big-budget corporate events to even political funerals, these drones are gaining eyeballs everywhere. There are at least 5 lakhs of them plying in the Indian sky, needless to mention, most of which are illegal.

While drone operations in any form have been banned in India since 2014, the drones that we see all around us are either imported or smuggled in from foreign countries, mainly China. While this gadget is used largely for photography or as a sophisticated toy, it has the potentials to leak internal information to a neighboring country, thus jeopardizing India’s security at large.  

While recent news reveals that in the immediate backdrop of India's move to acquire S-400 sophisticated missile defense systems from Russia, China is set to sell 48 high-end military drones to Pakistan, this is not the only drone-related threat for India from China. A recent Bloomberg report mentioned how China used a super hardware, in form of a tiny chip to infiltrate US companies. This attack reached close to 30 US companies, including the bigwigs of Silicon city like Apple and Amazon, by compromising America’s technology supply chain. 

The magnitude of this National Security Threat that drones may pose, can best be understood when concerns on use of DJI Drones by the defense forces of the USA, Australia and many other countries across the world along with the currently raging controversy of the Chinese Super Hardware found in the US Telecom systems are factored in to arrive at the larger picture. Thus the risk India may be exposed to with those illegal drones plying all over the Indian sky is manifold and it is about time to curb the risk factors down. 

While we have seen a spurt of Chinese drones in Indian market over the last three to four years, we need to probe deeper into the reasons behind this. In order to regulate drone use in India, in October 2014, Directorate General Of Civil Aviation (DGCA) issued a circular completely banning the use of drones in India. This effectively turned all drone usage illegal, leading to unavailability of drones in the Indian market and in turn smuggling of the same to India to meet the demand became a lucrative business for Grey Market Operators. 

However, over a period of time, understanding the need of the hour, DGCA has developed a consolidated drone regulation after extensive consultations among various stakeholders that will come into effect from December 2018. These new set of rules add registration and licensing regime to the entire process. 

Rough Market Estimates indicate that the population of these illegal drones is around 5 lakhs Pieces. No one really knows the correct figure as the overwhelming majority of these drones is sans any form of paperwork for either their imports or sales or ownership. Its is On Boarding this huge population existing drones in the Indian Ecosystem that holds the key to the successful implementation of DGCA’s Drone regulations. The existence of these drones is itself a standing testimony to the failure at the implementation level of DGCA’s 2014 notification banning the use of civilian drones.

Lack of appreciation of the economics behind the existing Indian drone ecosystem has the potential to derail its fledgling regulatory framework. This fact can best be understood by the fact that each current owner of these illegal drone has invested a minimum of Rs 1 lakh per drone and has been delivering drone services to various clients including Government Organizations over the past four years and earning from it despite the Ban and would continue to do so irrespective of the regulatory framework. The hyperlocal nature of Drone use makes policing practically impossible a fact that is at the heart of failure DGCA’s 2014 notification. Hence unless each owner is provided with an option to voluntarily on board their existing Drone into the regulatory framework they would continue with business as usual. None would be willing invest a further Rs 1 lakh for a new regulatory compliant drone when having a perfectly operating one at hand and knowledge of the failure of implementation that has allowed them to operate fairly unhindered in the recent past. 

The recent Airport Authority of India Tender for Creation of the DIGITAL SKY Platform does not contain any mention of a Retrofit system for onboarding the existing drones in the Indian Ecosystem. This missing link has the potential to render the BOOT Model of DIGITAL SKY unviable for the operator given that the volume of new drones coming into the system would be affected by the huge volume of illegal drone operating outside the system much like the parallel economy.

The Ministry of Road Transport & Highways has addressed this need for a retrofit solution to be available in parallel with an OEM fitment for tracking over 2 crore existing commercial vehicles in India by creating a secure hardware level fully Indian retrofit solution in the form ARAI’s AIS 140 specification including a testing and type approval system for these to ensure quality and system compliance.

This system being established by MORTH to handle a far higher volume of commercial vehicular traffic across India could easily be adapted to offer the existing drone operators in the Indian ecosystem a retrofit solution for their existing assets. This would enable them to ply their trade legally a major incentive to come on board. This would further ensure that national security would be always on top of the mind across stakeholders in the Civilian Drone Ecosystem.

The financial Implication of the Parallel drone economy of the past four years is huge. An estimated Rs 5000 crores of Indian Investment assuming Rs 1 lakh per drone based on which the estimated loss to the exchequer by way taxes would Rs 900 – 1000 crores. On boarding the existing drones in the Indian Ecosystem could provide an opportunity for the governments to levy a Registration Tax on these drones much like the Life Time Tax charged by RTOs at the time of Vehicle registrations.   

Drones are Vehicles much like Automobiles hence rules and systems applicable to automobiles can be adapted and applied to them.

With these regulations in place, drone technology can be adapted across sectors to explore a whole gamut of opportunities. At a time when drones are being used globally in a variety of applications, including agriculture, mining, etc., this new regulation by DGCA and notification by MORTH is expected to give a new lease of life to drone technology in India, and open doors to an arena of services involving high-end technology.   

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


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Sai Pattabiram

The author is the founder and CEO of Shree Sai Aerotech Innovations Pvt Ltd and Zuppa, ‘the only made in India’ drone.

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