Update: A change in the air for the drone industry in India


India’s contentiously regulated drone space may see exciting changes, soon! The Director General of Civil Aviation or the “DGCA” – the authority that regulates the unmanned aerial vehicles industry in India – has initiated talks with seven companies to explore the usage of UAVs for civilian and commercial purposes. Large food delivery providers and technology-based medical suppliers count themselves among the companies engaged in discussions with the DGCA.

Unmanned aerial vehicles – or drones in common parlance – were banned by the DGCA in 2014. The ban was later lifted, and in December, 2018, the government crafted a regulatory policy (civil aviation requirements) that laid down the prerequisites for operating drones, triggering excitement in the wake of the possibilities that could open up for exploiting drone technology for commercial objectives. The civil aviation requirements released by the DGCA prescribe rules on how unmanned aircrafts operated from a remote pilot station can be flown, and the restrictions they have to operate under. For example, operators of these aircrafts are required to obtain a unique identification number from the DGCA for their aircrafts, and are also required to seek unmanned aircraft operator permits from the DGCA. The DGCA also requires pilots to be at least eighteen years of age, have attained prescribed academic qualifications, and have undergone practical training that is approved by the DGCA. These permits are issued for five years and are non-transferable. Certain types of unmanned aircrafts – for example, those that weigh less than 250 grams and thus fall within a “nano” category and those operated by certain agencies of the government – are exempted from seeking identification numbers.

These requirements go further: they outline other conditions for the operation of drones, including restricting them to day-time only, and that too within visual line of sight. Drones are restricted from operating within a distance of five kilometers from the perimeter of airports at Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Kolkata, Bengaluru, and Hyderabad and within a distance of three kilometres from the perimeter of any civil, private or defence airports. Eco-sensitive zones around national parks and wildlife sanctuaries are also off-limits without prior permission. Violations of these requirements may attract both, penal action as well as suspension of permits granted by the DGCA. For a more detailed treatment of these requirements, please refer to our note.

Barely a month after publishing the drone policy in December, the Ministry of Civil Aviation released a draft policy roadmap at the Global Aviation Summit, 2019 for establishing a fully functional drone ecosystem that would allow commercial usage of drones in India. The proposed policy sought to expand the operational airspace for drones by allowing them to fly beyond the present visual line of sight of 400 feet, recommended establishing a “Drone Corridor” to keep commercial drone operations out of the manned aircraft airspaces and setting up a traffic management system, and envisaged the introduction of new stakeholders such as the DigitalSky service providers who could engage in providing enabled services to drone operators, relevant law enforcement authorities and other stakeholders. Significantly, the draft policy called for allowing 100% foreign investments in unmanned aircraft services and drone-based commercial aviation services.

While the new policy is still in the draft stage, the civil aviation requirements released in December stand – however, these recent development raise exciting possibilities for the future of drones in India.


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