India’s new rules for drones a welcome move

Economic Times, August 04, 2021

By Pradeep S Mehta and Prince Gupta

Overall, the new rules put forth promising foundational ground for the drone industry. Institutionalising RIA, addressing privacy concerns and on-ground implementation challenges will make the growth of the sector more robust.

On June 27th, two enemy drones attacked the Indian Air Force base in Jammu. Given the threat to national security, a complete ban even on commercial drones was expected. However, the recently released Draft Drone Rules 2021 by the Ministry of Civil Aviation (MCA) are aimed at liberalising India’s drone industry. It was not deterred by the possibility of a brouhaha over the same in view of the Jammu attack. This is a very welcome move, because drones are now being used in many ways which include development activities…

The government had earlier made flying drones legal in 2018 but only under restricted conditions. The Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) Rules 2021 were released in March but were packed with bureaucratic control. Recognising the industry’s displeasure over the existing rules which promoted license raj, the MCA has released the new draft rules which are revolutionary and can also positively impact the ease of doing business (EoDB) in the sector.

As per the press release by the MCA, the new regulatory regime will be based on ‘trust, self-certification and non-intrusive monitoring’. The new rules will ease the registration process, requiring only six forms instead of 25. Now, only a Unique Identification Number will be issued. The Digital Sky Platform will be revamped into a single-window online system. Zoning will be done using an airspace map. Thus, there has been a focus on increasing the EoDB. While the new rules open new possibilities. some concerns/gaps need to be addressed.

Firstly, a six-monthly evaluation report on the economic impact of the rules will be prepared by the proposed Drone Promotion Council (DPC), listing out the achievements of the drone industry and the measures taken for improving the EoDB. While this is a positive step, however, this is only an ex-post evaluation. In addition to it, the MCA may consider an ex-ante evaluation of the rules by conducting regulatory impact assessments (RIA). This will ensure that compliance costs of the rules don’t outweigh their intended benefits.

Secondly, securing the privacy of citizens is another important area of concern which has received lesser attention. Drones can be used to invade privacy of individuals by taking close photographs, shooting videos or recording sound. Right to Privacy is a fundamental right. The existing UAS rules, though vaguely worded, have provisions in this regard and require drone operators to ensure privacy of citizens. Making no mention of privacy, the new draft rules fall short. In the absence of a law for personal data protection, invasion of privacy using drones can easily become a norm. The new draft rules should address privacy concerns and have strong provisions for the same.

Thirdly, none of the regulations matter if the implementation of the rules remains flimsy on the ground. The rules promise several positives such as a single-window online system, six-monthly economic assessment of the rules and creation of an airspace map. The MCA needs to ensure that these are done in time. The aim of the government should be to limit ambiguity and provide certainty to the drone industry.

Fourthly, addressing security concerns is also required. Drones can be used for cross border terrorism and insurgency. It is important to create a robust counter drone system for which, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is already working.

Finally, promoting research and development (R&D) is also important. Just exempting certificate requirements and organising competitive events is not sufficient. The government should explore setting up drone institutes in public private partnerships which can facilitate R&D.

This will help in reaping the enormous economic potential of drones. E-commerce and cargo companies can utilise drones for making deliveries. Drone taxis can become a reality as the weight limit has been increased to 500 kg. They can be used for surveying in industries like construction, mining etc. The government can use drones for pursuing public good like using them for disaster management, ensuring national security and cartographic surveys. For instance, the SVAMITVA scheme of the Ministry of Panchayati Raj surveys rural land properties using drones.

As the new rules ease regulations and promote EoDB, demand for commercial drones will increase. Thus, easing regulations is not enough and promoting drone manufacturing in India is also important. In view of our close defence cooperation with the US, we should ask General Atomics to start making drones in India for domestic and foreign markets. Manufacturing of drones may be promoted under the Make in India campaign which will also create jobs in the sector. India can also aim to become a leading exporter, a spot currently occupied by China.

Overall, the new rules put forth promising foundational ground for the drone industry. Institutionalising RIA, addressing privacy concerns and on-ground implementation challenges will make the growth of the sector more robust.

Nevertheless, ensuring compliance of the rules is the biggest challenge for the government, especially since previously drafted rules have been ridden with non-compliance. Therefore, the MCA through the Drone Promotion Council needs to create awareness about the drone operability rules among both existing and potential drone operators and enthusiasts as well as tighten its enforcement capabilities.

The authors work for CUTS International, a global public policy research and advocacy group.

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