Drones recently made the headlines (again), this time due to the disruption caused by such unmanned aircraft hovering over London’s Gatwick airport. In case you missed the news, the sight of unidentified drones flying near the runways panicked the authorities and sent them scrambling. Planes were grounded for over 24 hours, disrupting the flights of no fewer than 100,000 travelers!
The incident spurred talk of drone regulation not only in the UK, but the rest of the world. (We may be hearing more on the matter from the International Organization for Standardization.) As it happens, India – though still very much a developing country – is galloping forward when it comes to this issue. In India, where private and limited commercial use of drones is already underway, legislation is so forward-looking as to envision drones as delivery vehicles and even taxis!
India’s Ministry of Civil Aviation enacted its “Drone Regulations 1.0” policy, the contents of which had been unveiled earlier, on December 1st of this year. The legal framework lays out the rules governing the flying of drones. It is widely viewed as a test case, and may well have far-reaching ramifications.
In the new set of laws, a drone is defined as an unmanned aircraft piloted from a remote pilot station. Taken together, “the remotely piloted aircraft, its associated remote pilot station(s), command and control links and any other components” are considered “a Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS).” Based on weight, drones are slotted into one of five categories: Nano, Micro, Small, Medium, and Large. Each drone, with the exception of those falling under the Nano heading, requires a Unique Identification Number (UIN).
As for the flights themselves, they may only take place during daytime hours, must always remain within the Visual Line of Sight, and are prohibited from carrying any human, animal, or hazardous cargo. Insurance that covers third party damage is mandatory. Finally, in the event of disputes, manned aircraft are given priority when it comes to use of airspace.
The law also lists several locations where drones are not permitted to operate: within a five kilometer radius of the airports in Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Kolkata, Bengaluru, and Hyderabad; and within three kilometers of the perimeter of any other airport. They are also not allowed to fly within “permanent or temporary Prohibited, Restricted and Danger Areas,” as well as ecologically sensitive regions such as national parks and wildlife sanctuaries.
Meanwhile, there are restrictions in place on becoming a pilot. To begin with, you must be over 18 years of age. You also have to undergo training approved by the Ministry of Civil Aviation, after which you can obtain an Unmanned Aircraft Operator Permit (UAOP), needed for flying all but Nano and Micro drones at low altitudes.
Once you’ve jumped through all those hoops, you’re almost set to power up that drone and let it soar into the sky! There’s just one more step – well, a couple. The authorities operate Digital Sky Platform, an unmanned traffic management system overseeing the registration and licensing of drones and pilots, as well as providing the means to file your upcoming flight plan online. Skip using it at your own peril. Fortunately, approval for flights is often granted instantly.
It’s too early to determine the outcome of the drone law, but the feeling that drones are part of the future is strong enough to have spawned the “Drone 2.0” legal framework. Set for release at a global aviation summit on January 15th of the year that is almost upon us, subject to modification following public debate lasting 30 days, and slated to take effect (in whatever final form it assumes) in March, the proposed legislation already indicates the extent to which drones are expected to “take off” – as it were.
For example, Drone 2.0 will cover the expanded employment of drones for commercial purposes. This includes drones as taxis (surely a sight to see!) and delivery vehicles. The envisaged use of drones for such purposes naturally requires the law to delve into issues such as flights taking place beyond the line of sight, various kinds of payloads, and automation.
Are drones large and small in our collective skies on their way to becoming commonplace? If so, at least one country – as you can see – is already flying high. Indeed, when it comes to drones, while the European Union is struggling to turn a “fragmented regulatory framework” into something tighter and more cohesive, India seems to have surmounted this and other obstacles. Perhaps the authorities here should look eastward and take their cue from the most populous democracy in the world.