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Game of Drones: New Drone Rules and How Will They Affect Us

The Indian Ministry of Civil Aviation has come up with the new drone rules streamlining the process of registering, owning and flying a drone in India. The Drone Rules 2021 repeal the Unmanned Aviation Vehicle (UAV) Rules 2021 that were issued by the Ministry in March.

Coming weeks after the drone attack at the Jammu Air Base, the new rules have been published as a result of the severe backlash received for the UAV Rules from the drone manufacturers/importers and the enthusiasts alike for being too constrictive and procedurally onerous, especially in a market which is growing at an exponential rate globally in the pandemic times.

Government, in the new rules has primarily focused on self-certification and non-intrusive monitoring as against the security-centric rules published in March and consequentially removed a number of operational complexities for all stakeholders in the drone industry.

To what will these rules apply to?

These rules will apply to any autonomous or remotely operated aircraft (hereafter, drone) under or equal to 500 kg; exceeding which the aircraft will be governed by the Aircraft Rules, 1937. This 500 kg maximum limit corresponds to the all-up weight which is the total weight of the drone at the time of take-off including the weight of the several accessories and the payload (if any) attached to the body of the unmanned aircraft system.

Classification of drones:

Drones have been classified into 5 major categories on the basis of their all-up weights (AUW) as under the new rules. They are:
  1. Nano drones (upto 250 g)
  2. Micro drones (250 g upto 2 kg)
  3. Small drones (2 kg upto 25 kg)
  4. Medium drones (25 kg upto 150 kg)
  5. Large drone (greater than 150 kg)
This classification comes as a welcome development for recreational or non-commercial drone operators as subjecting drones of all types, despite vast differences in their utility and areas of employment to the same rules would otherwise, cause several procedural and material hindrances for casual and professional operators alike. Licensing and certification regulations have been relaxed for smaller drones consequently.

Registration

As per the Drone Rules 2021, every new drone needs to be registered with the digital sky platform and have a Unique Identification Number (UIN). A person owning an existing drone imported or manufactured before 31st December 2021 needs to self-register and generate the UIN which can be conveniently done online on the aforementioned platform.

Licensing and certification

A mandatory remote pilot license is required to operate any drone within the borders of India. However such a license will not be required for the operation of nano drones and non-commercial micro drones under the new drone rules. The license can be obtained on successful completion of the training from an authorised remote pilot training organisation following which it needs to be enlisted on the government's digital sky platform specifically mentioning the drone class for which such a license has been granted for.

Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Uran Akademi teaming up with Drone Destination, a drone-specific tech start-up has set up two of the remote pilot training schools in Manesar and Bengaluru with an aim to open such schools all over the country. The license will be valid for a period of 10 years and maybe renewed by any authorised remote pilot training organisation for a specified period subject to guidelines of the Director General of Civil Aviation.

Furthermore, a drone needs to comply with a certificate of airworthiness issued by the Quality Council of India (QCI). The standards of such certification shall be specified by the central government on the recommendations of the QCI. The onus of obtaining such a certificate is on the manufacturer/importer and not the owner/operator. Prototype drones employed for research and development and nano drones shall be exempted from obtaining a certificate of airworthiness.

Zone demarcations and drone operations

As per the new rules, the Central government plans to divide the entire airspace of India into three operation zones, (i) green, (ii) yellow and (iii) red. An operator would need prior permission of the relevant authorities before flying any drone in the red or yellow zones and no prior permission is required to fly a drone in the green zones up to an altitude of 200 feet. The government plans to create an interactive machine accessible interface for the zonal maps for the ease of the drone operators in mapping their flight routes.

A list of No-fly zones has also been published which includes areas within five kilometres radius around all the six major international airports, three kilometres around any civil or military airport, twenty-five kilometres from the LOC, LAC and AGPL amongst other areas.

Plans to create an Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management (UTM) System are also in order which will be accessible through the digital sky platform. Such a traffic management system shall be a major leap towards creating safe drone corridors in the country that would open drone operations to a multitude of opportunities like safe delivery of goods and medicines as is the need of the times.

Insurance, prosecution and penalties

Mandatory insurance is required for any material damage caused by the drone and will be governed by Motor Vehicles Act 1988. Nano drones again have been exempted from requiring such insurance to operate.

On the non-compliance of Drone Rules, 2021, the person shall be punishable under Section 10 (2) of the Aircraft Act, 1934 which entails an imprisonment of upto 2 years.
Furthermore, the Director General of Civil Aviation upon his satisfaction, after providing the offender a fair chance of being heard, may impose a penalty of Rupees one lakh.

The good and the bad- How will these rules affect us?

India has a policy of 'no permission, no take-off (NPNT)' in place for every class of drones barring nano drones. Under the previous rules, this essentially entailed the operator to take permission through the digital sky platform for each and every flight made regardless of the zone the drone was being operated in (flights in green zone were to be also notified of on the digital sky platform through a portal/app). Futhermore, the demarcated 'free-to-fly' green zones were too few and far between. Under the new rules there is no permission required for take-off in the green zones.

Be it delivery services, emergency relief services, remote sensing or photography, the facets of life drones could have an impact on is endless. Several food delivery services like Zomato and Swiggy were granted licenses for test delivery services last year. In another futuristic example of drone deployment Google's Dunzo Digital has already began the experimental BVLOS (Below Visual Line of Sight) delivery of medicines to Covid-19 patients in the state of Telangana which entails covering a minimum distance of 500 metres from the operator in a straight line flight.

However, the relaxation of drone rules also raises a bunch of safety concerns. With the advances in camera and surveillance tech in the past decade, a tussle between streamlining the use of drones and questions regarding mass-surveillance and privacy has plagued the policy drafters of western nations for some time now. India is currently standing at the same doorstep. Easing the use of drones may help the law enforcing authorities in maintaining better order but then it comes at the price of every citizen's privacy.

Furthermore, not only government authorities but it also makes very easy for private parties to knowingly or unknowingly encroach upon private spaces of other citizens. The new drone rules don't talk about the surveillance aspect of drone operations explicitly and no complaint redressal system has been put in place with the various implications over-use of drones may cause regards to Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution.

The new regulations have also dropped a number of specific rules in order to simplify the usage of drones, however too much simplifying may pose problems of its own. For example, the new rules don't address use of drones in national parks and other ecological protection zones which was banned as per the March 2021 rules.

Drones originating in India maybe regulated by NPNT guidelines and the online Digital Sky platform, but that does not take away the threat faced from foreign drones. Drone attack on Jammu airbase in July of 2021 is a direct example of the threats misuse of drones may imply. In another recent example a drone assumed to be of of Pakistani origin was spotted airdropping 6 kg of Heroin near the Indo-Pakistan border in Amritsar.

The new rules have not put in place a new body acting as a 'drone police', however, major technological advancements will still be required to develop a foolproof detection system that can be employed on the national borders and places of national or strategic importance.

Conclusion
Over the past few years, drones globally have become instrumental for several businesses and organisations in reaching places that were geographically or topographically impenetrable. Furthermore, they have come to the fore in several new sectors such as advertisement, contactless deliveries, photography, reconnaissance and the list is endless.

Drone tech is evolving everyday and the possibilities for their employment in various sectors seem limitless. India with these new drone rules has recognised the boundless potential this tech can have on the near future and has adopted a forward-thinking approach towards their regulation, taking the public backlash into consideration and re-evaluating the regressive approach taken in the earlier UAV Rules. This will, in turn open many new doors for research and innovation in this sector.

However, a more detailed framework regarding the NPNT tech and BVLOS is still required to be provided by the rules. A defense investment is also required for anti-drone machinery in order to tackle the security issues on national borders. The government is expected to release more notifications regarding the privacy concerns and other issues around drone operation.

A balance between granting freedom and putting a reasonable restraint on that freedom shall always be up for debate. However, with the utility and the speed at which drones are being adopted in a variety of fields, it would be safe to say, sky is the limit!

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