Drone attacks in Saudi Arabia and Iraq have raised concerns among Indian security agencies, and the government is tightening the regulatory grip on the infant sector. The newly-launched Digital Sky Platform, a registration portal for manufacturers and operators on the lines of the one operated by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), is likely to introduce more stringent requirements. The fears are not misplaced, since drones constitute a new means of surveillance and a novel attack vector, and must coexist with civil aviation safety requirements, besides military and public security imperatives. However, the government must take care not to stall the new industry on take-off by excessive or arbitrary regulation, which is often encouraged by diffuse anxieties.
Drones constitute a broad-spectrum enabling technology which could open up or broaden several sectors. While e-commerce platforms and fast food companies would like to use drones to service urban addresses like high-rise apartments more cost-effectively, development and environment agencies would use them to supply medicines in remote mountain areas, or to deliver seeds to reforest such regions. Drones bear comparison with communications and the internet, enabling technologies which have powered unprecedented growth across sectors as distinct as tourism and disaster management. However, communications remained government-controlled until the mid-Nineties because of security considerations, and spectrum was held exclusively by the government and the military. Recently, the opening up of retail and e-commerce has been needlessly slow and granular because of concerns about the economic security of traditional retail. It turned out that the fears were exaggerated. Retail as a whole benefited from the enlargement of the marketplace, and traditional sellers and distribution networks integrated quickly with e-commerce. Genetically modified Bt brinjal demonstrated a different phenomenon: Politicisation of the question of safety, conflated with concerns about intellectual property rights, caused regulation to be applied arbitrarily.
The apparent trigger for India’s concern about drone policy is the killing of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani. But in our region, historically, a fully loaded garland or a case of exploding mangoes has always been preferred over high technology. Other considerations of public security do demand consideration, though. The proposed restrictions are roughly on the lines of recent drone regulation under the FAA in the US. But the government should assess threat perceptions logically, and not expand on the theme of security without good cause. Reckless caution must not trammel a technology which has the potential to open up multiple markets.
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