Flying robots have been used in war since World War I, but are also capable of various non-conflict uses. Colloquially known as drones, these devices have recently become commercially available at prices accessible to a wide range of non-governmental consumers. As is common when new technologies are introduced to the wider public, regulators and policymakers around the world are grappling with the implications of drones in civilian hands. India’s aviation regulator, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), issued a notification on October 7, 2014 that completely banned any use of drones by civilians pending the issuance of official guidelines. As of March 2016, official guidelines on civilian drone use in India have not yet been issued. However, this has not stopped Indian civilians from using drones, as can be seen by a cursory look at any online Indian drone-users forum.
Carnegie India, in collaboration with the India International Center, hosted a closed-door roundtable discussion in New Delhi on the key issues surrounding the use of civilian drones in India on March 9, 2016.
The Current Situation
The participants in this discussion, representing civil society organizations, industry, and defense, unanimously agreed that clear regulations were required, as the status quo is not sustainable from the point of view of national security, industrial growth, or social welfare.
From the national security perspective, there are already many drones in the hands of Indian civilians, and the DGCA ban is unenforceable.
The DGCA ban is unenforceable. Drones already exist in India, and some are being operated. A customs department ruling that puts drones on the ‘prohibited and dutiable’ list of imports will only come into effect from April 1, 2016, a year and a half after the DGCA declared its ban. An unquantifiable number of drones have simply been carried into the country in checked baggage already. Techniques and policies have not been developed or agreed to counter the operation of drones currently and prospectively in the country. Nor have relevant government agencies been instructed on how to implement the DGCA ban.
From the industry’s perspective, it is very risky to manufacture or operate drones in a country where the relevant regulations are unclear.
While the DGCA’s October 2014 notification banned the use of all drones, the DGCA and other government bodies have been permitting selected drone application companies to operate in India, allowing them to fly drones for commercial purposes. However, the reasoning behind these decisions is opaque, and has resulted in a business environment where domain investment, research, and innovation are stifled.
From the social welfare perspective, drones can be used to do good; for example, humanitarian relief and wildlife conservation projects have benefited from drone deployments. However, civil society organizations are unable to deploy drones without clear regulations in place.
Drones have been used to perform post-disaster aerial assessments, helping in locating survivors and allocating aid effectively, and also in carrying in medicines and other supplies to otherwise inaccessible areas. They have also been used to conduct anti-poaching operations and habitat surveys, aiding in wildlife conservation. However, the lack of regulations in India has inhibited deployment of drones, which is unfortunate for those who would most benefit from their operations.
While official guidelines are being drawn up, there is a disconnect at the conceptual level between the actual potential of drones and the regulatory authorities’ perspective of their potential. This must be addressed to ensure that when the official guidelines are issued, they do not merely extend the current situation but instead address the concerns of all stakeholders and ensure that civilian drones benefit the nation.
The participants also shared their opinions on the issues that civilian drone regulations in India should address.
Ownership and Responsibility
Indian civilian drone regulations must address the crucial issue of identifying drones, identifying drone owners, and assigning liability for any mishaps. A compulsory licensing scheme for drone owners and operators, as well as a registration system based on visible markings or passive transponders on the drones themselves (akin to IMEI numbers on cellular phones), would help address this issue. While the regulatory burden must be balanced, it must also put the onus on the end-user.
Drone Definition and Classification
For any regulations on civilian drones to remain relevant, they must first define what a drone is, and then differentiate between drones based on their weight, potential uses, payload type, and intelligence level (i.e. remote-control, automatic, or autonomous), among other categorizations.
While the DGCA is the civil aviation regulator, India’s Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), tasked with internal security, sees civilian drones as a security issue and has the final say on civilian drone-related matters. To ensure that the civilian drone industry in India can take flight, any regulations must take into account the MHA’s concerns regarding the implications of civilian drones on national security. A related policy on counter-drone operations would assist with the development of technology that can neutralize rogue drones.
As drones and civilian planes function under different operating parameters (for example, the concept of Visual Flight Rules does not apply to drones), care must be taken to ensure that they can co-exist in India’s civilian airspace. The technological aspect of tracking drones and ensuring that they move only in designated flyways where they can pose no hazard to civilian planes is of crucial importance.
Learning from Other Countries
The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) expects to issue an initial set of standards and recommended practices for civilian drones by 2018. However, other countries are not waiting for ICAO. The Federal Aviation Administration in the United States has permitted civilian flights with specific constraints and has limited commercial operations, while permitting test flights so that innovation and technology advancement can continue. Various national civil aviation regulators in the European Union have come up with permissive regulations for civilian drone use, and the European Aviation Safety Agency is creating common regulations for the entire EU with the aim of permitting commercial operations by the end of 2016. Adapting these regulations to the Indian context would help put Indian civilian drone users on a level playing field with the rest of the world.
Clear regulations on civilian drone use, keeping in mind their true potential and the concerns of all stakeholders, would greatly benefit India. However, as drones are a new technology with attendant risks, increasing awareness amongst all parties involved, from operators and manufacturers to regulators and law enforcement, is of critical importance. This can be achieved by absorbing key lessons from other countries’ approaches to drone regulation and by broadening the public discourse on the subject.
Shashank Srinivasan is a conservation scientist with WWF-India.
R. Shashank Reddy and Arushi Kumar are research assistants with Carnegie India.