Dan­ger in the skies from drones

Business Standard - - FRONT PAGE - SURAJEET DAS GUPTA

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.

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