Danger in the skies from drones
If you thought disruption of flights due to sightings of drones was a problem only for Heathrow and Gatwick airports in the UK or Newark in the US, think again.
With over an estimated half a million commercial drones already in the Indian skies — roughly a ratio of 700 to a single aircraft — the risk of drones to airplanes could be as serious as in developed countries.
According to estimates based on Business Insider Intelligence of global shipments of commercial drones between 2014 and 2018, there are over 40 million commercial drones flying across the globe. The number of aircraft is only 50,000.
This works out to 800 drones to every aircraft. So India is quite close to the world average. Last year, a pilot spotted a drone just before Independence Day in Delhi and another pilot saw one in Bhubaneswar.
The problem in India is that most of these drones are illegal and unmonitored. A
comprehensive drone policy was announced last year, permitting drones to fly from December 1, 2018, with a permit. However, the existing drones in the skies cannot be registered under the new regulations as they are illegal. This is because the Centre imposed a virtual ban on the use
of commercial drones in October 2014. For instance, under the new rules, a drone will require an import licence from the Directorate General of Foreign Trade as well as clearance from the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) if it is an imported drone.
As a bulk of existing drones were smuggled in or imported under a different classification, they will not have a drone licence. The bulk of drones were manufactured in China. The drone manufacturer or importer will now also require approval of their equipment from the Department of Telecommunications for using a delicensed frequency band before the machines are sold. Clearly, none of the manufacturers or importers who sold illegal drones could have obtained such clearances.
Moreover, the drones have to be ‘No Permission No Takeoff or NPNT-compliant’, namely, the manufacturer has to load either software or certain hardware to ensure the DGCA can oversee its operations and ensure that any drone without permission cannot fly.
Under the new policy, an operator also has to submit its flight path to the government through a digital platform and it can fly only after it is given permission.
“The problem is how do we legalise this huge number of drones and ensure the government knows where they are located and what their flight plans are so that it can have control. Until the new regulations are tweaked, this cannot happen,” said Sai Pattabiram who runs Sree Sai Aerotech Innovations, which designs and develops drone technology.
The result of this situation is that the government has not been able to give permission to a single drone to fly legally. Since there are no NPNTenabled drones available, commercial drones in India are already being used without permission for aerial photography, movies, real estate, the oil and gas sector, factories, and for surveillance and security.
Discussions are underway with the industry on the best course of action. A proposal to retrofit the old drones with a tracking device or a GPS cleared by the regulators, under which the NPNT can be enabled, is under discussion.
Through the device, mounted on the old drones, the government can oversee details of drone locations, owners’ names, and control of the flight path. “The Ministry of Civil Aviation has been positive to this suggestion and we are working on a detailed plan on how this can be done,” said an executive, who was part of a meeting on the implementation of the drone policy.
Experts say this is similar to what the Ministry of Roadways has undertaken for public vehicles such as buses which will have to install a location tracking device by April, so that the government can oversee the movement of the vehicle.
Industry experts say that some aspect of the new drone regulations, such as the requirement for an import licence, will also require relaxing.