In October this year, an unmanned aerial vehicle — a drone in common parlance — collided with a small passenger aircraft in Canada at about 1,500 feet in the air that was carrying six passengers and two crew members. This was the first reported incident in North America of a drone colliding with an airplane. While the aircraft sustained only minor damages and none of the passengers were hurt, the incident triggered a serious debate on the need for regulation of drones.
Closer home, a private airline’s pilot saw a drone from his window while landing at Delhi airport in August this year, resulting into the airport being shut down for nearly an hour. After this, the government and the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) expedited the process of issuing the regulations for drones. Even as these norms are expected to give an impetus to the drone industry, experts suggest that the government and the regulator should also focus on laying down apparatus for effective enforcement of the rules.
The global spending on drones could be as high as $100 billion over the next five years, Goldman Sachs had estimated in a March 2016 report, primarily led by end-use sectors such as construction, real estate, agriculture and film-making. However, Canada’s Minister of Transport Marc Garneau suggested that enforcement of rules is key considering the sudden increase in use of drones combined with the fact that some people may be using the aircraft without being aware of the rules.
“Enforcement of rules is a very important part because there has been an explosion in the use of drones and while most people are following the rules, some people don’t know about them and are just putting their drones up there. They may be putting it in a place where it could present a hazard because of the aircraft traffic,” Garneau told The Indian Express.
While the US Federal Aviation Administration lays down clear penal provisions for operators violating the rules, breach of compliance to any of Indian requirements shall attract penal actions including penalties under the Indian Penal Code. For example, in case of breach of privacy through drones, the privacy laws will apply, in case of violation of mineral exploration guidelines, the laws governing that particular sector will be applicable. However, DGCA, in the draft regulation, does mention that operators’ permit issued by the regulator shall be cancelled or suspended at “any time if in its opinion, the performance of the remote pilot /maintenance of RPAS (remotely piloted aircraft system) is no longer acceptable”.
“Higher penalties will only deter genuine enthusiasts, researchers and commercial users of RPAs (remotely piloted aircraft). It will also create undue harassment of RPA users and create a parallel economy. There are enough technology safeguards to monitor wrongful use of RPAs. In case of violations, financial penalties, cancellation of the UAOP (unmanned aircraft operators permit), blacklisting of the operator and criminal prosecution are various options that the regulator has, depending on the severity of the said violation,” said Amber Dubey, KPMG’s partner and India head of aerospace and defence.
Dubey said that the rogue elements could use the drones for invasion of privacy, corporate espionage or pornography. “As per the DGCA draft CAR (civil aviation requirements), the RPA operator is liable to ensure that privacy norms of individuals are not compromised in any manner. We feel that the operator should be required to maintain copies of the footage for a reasonable period, say 1-2 years, which shall be open to scrutiny,” he added.
Dubey also pointed out that drone operators should be well-trained about the norms and the potential safety hazards that these unmanned aircraft present.
“Even a 1 kg drone falling on a person or property from 100 ft can cause severe damage. There should be online and offline courses that each RPA operator must undertake and get a certificate for. DGCA should provide a list of training providers the same,” he said.
Concurring with the argument that training of operators is must, Garneau said that they must be educated about the law of the land to ensure safety is not compromised. “In fact, as transport minister, I hear about pilots coming in to land, or taking off, with big airplanes are reporting seeing drones out of their cockpit windows. That’s not something that should ever happen. If you are a pilot, you should never see a drone. If you see one, that’s because it is where it is not supposed to be. So, we have to continue to not only make rules but also educate people about the rules,” he told this newspaper.
“We have education to do, but also part of the rules that Canada would be coming out next year will involve people demonstrating that they have knowledge about the rules with respect to drones — like how high they can go, when they can be used, they always have to be visible and can’t disappear behind the buildings — and maybe some age requirements will be there. We don’t want to stop people from having drones but it’s very important to understand that if you’re going to put it up in the airspace, airplanes are also there,” Garneau added.
Civil aviation secretary R N Choubey had earlier said that the government was working on ways to have in place technologies that could neutralise “rogue drones” that could possibly be used for nefarious activities. Rogue drones could be ones that deviate from the permitted area or those which have not taken any permission at all, he had said. Garneau, while uncertain about what would happen if a drone was no longer in control of its operator, said that there are certain drones in the market that are programmed to automatically go back to the operator if they lose contact. “Some of them are also programmed because they use GPS and know where the airports are to not go near them — they have an equivalent of a GPS map in their computers on board the aircraft. But some of the smaller drones don’t
have that and that’s where we have to be more concerned about people using them without realising how dangerous they can be,” Garneau said.
“We would be happy to share our experiences with India, because I’m sure lots of drones are being used here as well,” he added.