The government may have attempted at providing a booster shot to the country’s drone scenario by issuing draft guidelines for operations — expected to be finalised in the next two months — but those wanting to operate drones above 250 gm in maximum take-off weight will have to go through a slew of requirements and attain various clearances before they are able to operate these aircraft. The Directorate General of Civil Aviation, in the draft norms, has proposed five categories:
* Nano: Less than or equal to 250 gm
* Micro: Greater than 250 gm but less than 2 kg
* Mini: Greater than 2 kg but less than 25 kg
* Small: Greater than 25 kg but less than 150 kg
* Large: Greater than 150 kg
The first step a drone operator will need to follow is to obtain a unique identification number (UIN) from the aviation regulator for the aircraft. This will be a one-time process, and the identification number will be provided only for a drone that is either wholly owned by an Indian citizen or a company, or to a drone that will be leased to an Indian citizen or company.
If the operator meets the above criteria, various documents will be required to obtain a UIN. These include contact details of operator with valid identity and address proofs; purpose and area of operation; specification of the drone including manufacturer name, type, model number, year of manufacture, weight and size, type of propulsion system, flying capabilities; permission for all frequencies used in drone’s operations from telecom department; security clearance from home ministry in a format provided by the DGCA; and verification of character and antecedents of the pilot from local subdivisional police office.
A number of other countries have already put in place their policies on operations of drones and one such is the US. Even as the US Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) rules allow flying a unmanned aircraft system for recreational or hobby purposes, it has laid down clear guidelines such as minimum distance from the airport, requirement to notify nearby airports and air traffic control tower when flying within 5 miles of an airport, and various others. The FAA has even developed a mobile app to “help recreational drone flyers to know whether there are any restrictions or requirements where they want to fly”. The rules also mandate drones weighing over 0.55 pounds to be registered with the FAA, failing which the regulator may assess civil penalties up to $27,500, or criminal penalties that include fines of up to $2,50,000 and/or imprisonment for up to three years.
The proposed Indian regulations don’t have any stipulations on the basis of use cases of drones, but in the US the rules are different if the aircraft is being used for recreational purposes than they are for commercial use of drones. For commercial purposes, the FAA stipulates that the operator must keep the aircraft in visual line-of-sight, must fly it under 400 feet during the day at or below 100 miles per hour. Further it must yield right of way to manned aircraft, and must not fly over people, and the pilot should ensure the aircraft is not being operated from a moving vehicle.
Some of these rules are similar to those proposed in India. However, the operational requirements are based on the aforementioned categories and not use cases. Drones under all the categories must maintain a 500 m visual line-of-sight and must operate during daylight. Even if a drone is being operated for private or recreational purposes, the operator must obtain clearance from the local police if it falls in any category other than Nano. Under the Nano category, while the maximum permitted height is 50 feet, for the other categories it is 200 feet. Drones falling under the categories of Mini and above can be operated over 200 feet but with certain restrictions.
For drones under mini, small and large categories, before flying, the operator will also need to prepare a flight plan, and obtain air defence clearance and permission from the relevant flight information centre. These, unlike, the registration requirements, will have to be obtained every time a drone is to be operated. On Wednesday, civil aviation secretary RN Choubey told reporters that the government was working to prepare an online platform where obtaining the aforementioned clearances would be simpler than going for paper-based clearances every time.
While the US FAA 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 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”.
Choubey also said that the civil aviation ministry was working on ways to have in place a technology 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 said. “We have had one meeting on this, and another meeting is on November 8 when we will be interacting with companies which have technologies for neutralising rogue drones,” he had said. However, the guidelines for neutralising drones are currently not in the purview of these draft regulations. While the government did not disclose the ways or technologies being studied for neutralising the drones, certain preventive ways are initially being discussed where the said aircraft won’t be allowed to deviate from the flight plan filed before its operations.
The government’s drive to lay down the regulations for drones gained momentum after, in August, during peak flight hours, the Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi was brought to a grinding halt for 45 minutes with all three runways being shut as a “precautionary measure” following pilots of an aircraft landing here spotting an unindentified object flying close to the plane. The result was that at least 35 flights were affected during the period as departures were stopped, and incoming aircraft were asked to hold or divert. Experts had then suggested that the incident had come as a wakeup call for the authorities, considering there were no policies or legal provisions in place to deal with unmanned aircraft systems, or drones.