Ini­tially in­ducted ex­clu­sively for mil­i­tary use, the po­ten­tial of UAVs are now be­ing ex­ploited in the do­main of civil avi­a­tion as well


Po­ten­tial of UAVs in Civil Avi­a­tion

Un­manned Ae­rial Ve­hi­cles (UAV) be­ing extremely ver­sa­tile fly­ing ma­chines, have re­cently elicited keen in­ter­est from dif­fer­ent stake­hold­ers. On the one hand, while UAVs that are low-cost and ver­sa­tile plat­forms of­fer­ing a va­ri­ety of ae­rial ap­pli­ca­tions, on the other its in­con­spic­u­ous­ness can eas­ily be ex­ploited by un­scrupu­lous el­e­ments and prove to be se­ri­ous threat to the so­ci­ety. Hence, there is a need to not only de­velop ap­pli­ca­tions for the UAV, but cred­i­ble safe­guards against its ma­li­cious use as well.

A UAV is a ma­chine that is flown by a pi­lot who is lo­cated on ground. Since no hu­man is on board, it re­duces the size of this fly­ing ma­chine, en­ables higher pay­loads to be car­ried, dis­penses with the need for long airstrips and min­imises the need for trained man­power.

UAVs are of mul­ti­ple types. The in­ven­tory of avail­able UAVs ranges from small hand-launched ma­chines to large, long en­durance ma­chines that re­quire a run­way for op­er­a­tions. UAVs can carry mul­ti­ple pay­loads such as cam­eras of all types, ion-based/sen­si­tive sen­sors, ra­dio re­lay equip­ment, py­lons for de­liv­ery of lights stores etc. The range of ap­pli­ca­tions of UAVs de­pends on the sen­sor/pod mounts and the imag­i­na­tion of the user. Ini­tially in­ducted ex­clu­sively for mil­i­tary use, the po­ten­tial of

UAVs are now be­ing ex­ploited in the do­main of civil avi­a­tion as well. Some of the roles of the UAVs in civil avi­a­tion are enu­mer­ated in the suc­ceed­ing para­graphs.


Ae­rial pho­tog­ra­phy is the most pop­u­lar use of the UAV. One can mount cal­i­brated in­frared, ul­travi­o­let, ther­mal or nor­mal vis­i­ble light spec­trum cam­eras. The bet­ter the res­o­lu­tion of the cam­era, the clearer will be the im­age even on mag­ni­fi­ca­tion. Such cam­eras will en­able the de­vice to fly higher and thus ac­quire a broader swath of the sur­face area un­der scan. This will re­duce the cost of ac­qui­si­tion of pho­to­graphs of large tracts of land and also elim­i­nate mul­ti­ple mis­sions. In the event in­frared cam­eras are used, de­pen­dence on ex­pen­sive satel­lite im­agery for crop yield es­ti­ma­tion can be mit­i­gated. A satel­lite usu­ally has a fixed win­dow of time­line to over­fly a given area. How­ever, as a UAV can be flown at will, it be­stows con­sid­er­able flex­i­bil­ity to the user. UAVs can be em­ployed to quickly es­ti­mate crop da­m­age due to nat­u­ral dis­as­ters and de­sign schemes to com­pen­sate af­fected farm­ers to pre­vent penury caused sui­cides.

Sur­vey of In­dia has al­ready switched over from man­ual meth­ods of sur­vey to use of UAVs mounted with cal­i­brated cam­eras. All that is re­quired now is to up­date ex­ist­ing maps for re­duced crop/for­est cover, ad­vanc­ing civil­i­sa­tion and change of course of rivers. A pic­ture of the de­sired area taken from a UAV duly scaled, is used to up­date the old map. The UAV is the fastest way of get­ting topo­graph­i­cal data of new ar­eas.

Re­cently film mak­ers too have taken to us­ing cam­era mounted UAVs as the plat­form

that pro­vides a ver­ti­cal or a slant vis­age of the sub­ject be­ing filmed. This brings a to­tally new ex­pe­ri­ence to the viewer. It has in­tro­duced an el­e­ment of thrill in movies that are shot near steep fort walls. UAV-based film­ing elim­i­nates the risk of crew and equip­ment fall­ing over walls, thus, re­duc­ing the cost of pho­tog­ra­phy and the as­so­ci­ated in­sur­ance pre­mi­ums.

UAVs can also be de­ployed to pho­to­graph ar­eas along align­ments where a new road or rail track is to be built. This data can be used by the con­cerned agen­cies to eval­u­ate eco­nomic fea­si­bil­ity and work out costs. Con­trac­tors can pre­pare tech­ni­cal and fi­nan­cial bids based on the UAV im­agery.

The ver­ti­cal take­off and land­ing ca­pa­bil­ity of small UAVs en­able them to be de­ployed in open shaft mines. The min­ers use ex­plo­sives to loosen the earth to look for the de­sired min­er­als. This is where these ver­sa­tile UAVs come in. The UAV can be flown to lo­cate the best spot where the ex­plo­sive needs to be planted to loosen the max­i­mum earth. The UAV should then be used to see the best way to move in cranes and dumpers to ex­tract the min­er­als af­ter the blast. This will save time, money and also min­imise the risk to hu­man lives, thus in­creas­ing prof­itabil­ity of min­ing op­er­a­tions.

Con­trac­tors can use UAVs to ac­quire im­ages of ar­eas where they wish to start con­struc­tion projects. This will en­able them to es­ti­mate costs prag­mat­i­cally and schedule their work to pre­vent cost and time over­runs by keep­ing check on progress. Con­trac­tors can check with UAVs as to whether their on­site staff is work­ing or not. The UAVs with suit­able cam­eras can also check for on­site pil­fer­ages, other loss gen­er­at­ing ac­tions and safe­guard­ing of as­sets by day and night sur­veil­lance of the ar­eas of in­ter­est. It will be an ex­cel­lent idea to carry out sur­veil­lance us­ing UAVs over gated com­mu­ni­ties where se­cu­rity is para­mount.


De­liv­ery of small size cargo in­clud­ing time-sen­si­tive emer­gency med­i­cal sup­plies be­tween hos­pi­tals such as im­plants or or­gans, can be done us­ing UAVs. The UAV can fly along the short­est route to re­duce de­liv­ery time, elim­i­nate de­lays due to road con­ges­tion and ac­ci­dents.


Ra­dio shadow ar­eas be­tween trans­mit­ting sta­tions can be cov­ered by de­ploy­ing UAVs hav­ing ra­dio re­broad­cast equip­ment. This will be par­tic­u­larly ef­fec­tive over wilder­ness, re­mote ar­eas where ei­ther a plane has crashed or where a dis­as­ter has struck. The range of ex­ist­ing trans­mit­ters too can be en­hanced by tem­po­rar­ily de­ploy­ing such equip­ment mounted on a UAV.


When dis­as­ter strikes, usu­ally all means of ac­cess, sus­te­nance and re­cov­ery are dev­as­tated. It is a known fact that the max­i­mum lives can be saved in the ini­tial hours af­ter a dis­as­ter. This is where UAVs can be re­ally ef­fec­tive in restor­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion, as­sess­ing da­m­age by send­ing pho­to­graphs of the af­fected ar­eas and fly­ing in small suc­cor and emer­gency sup­plies apart from es­tab­lish­ing tem­po­rary links with the strug­gling ar­eas as dis­as­ter re­lief forces rush in.


Har­bor man­age­ment is a tricky as­pect. This is so be­cause un­like an Air Traf­fic Con­trol tower that only has to keep alert and mon­i­tor air­craft fly­ing in and out of the des­ig­nated fun­nel so cre­ated, a har­bour has boats and ships com­ing in at all times and from all di­rec­tions. As a re­sult, it is quite com­mon to learn that small boats and trawlers keep col­lid­ing with each other. This problem can be mit­i­gated to quite an ex­tent if the Cap­tain of the Port or the Har­bour Mas­ter is pro­vided with live feed ob­tained from the loitering UAVs both at day and at night. This will be very use­ful in foggy con­di­tions if ther­mal cam­eras are mounted on UAVs. It will pre­vent loss of as­sets, lives and block­age of the limited har­bour chan­nels by pre­vent­ing ac­ci­dents.


A UAV can also be ex­ploited by un­scrupu­lous el­e­ments to cause da­m­age to the so­ci­ety. Hence, there is a need to reg­u­late the ac­qui­si­tion and us­age of UAVs through a reg­u­la­tory frame­work with­out crip­pling this as­set.The pol­icy frame­work can be the same as for pri­vate jets pro­mul­gated by Direc­torate Gen­eral of Civil Avi­a­tion (DGCA) for the metro cities, sen­si­tive in­stal­la­tions and vul­ner­a­ble ar­eas such as air­ports, etc. For Tier-II and -III cities, rules need to be framed based on the da­m­age po­ten­tial an un­scrupu­lous elent can com­mand with a UAV. The nodal agency for this will be DGCA in con­sul­ta­tion with the In­dian Air Force base in the area. Where no air base ex­ists, the near­est base of the In­dian Army would have to be in­volved. For hin­ter­land ar­eas in the, the po­lice would have to be in­volved.

A ceil­ing height should also be laid down, above which the UAVs should not be al­lowed to fly to avoid con­flict with civil air traf­fic. This can be achieved by in­stalling me­chan­i­cal gover­nors on the UAV fly­ing con­soles. The em­bed­ded programmes on board the UAVs that connect the op­er­a­tional com­mand with the me­chan­i­cal pro­pel­lers too can be writ­ten is such a way that height re­stric­tions can be im­posed as de­fault re­stric­tions. Where the threat to com­mer­cial air­craft does not exist, such re­stric­tions can be waived or spe­cific per­mis­sion be taken from the DGCA.

Air safety can also be en­sured by the DGCA cer­ti­fy­ing the max­i­mum all up weight and py­lon con­fig­u­ra­tion for each cat­e­gory of UAV that is ac­quired in In­dia. Ac­cord­ingly, vul­ner­a­ble loads can be specif­i­cally de­fined to min­imide ac­ci­dent-re­lated col­lat­eral da­m­age.

Air Traf­fic Man­age­ment can be en­sured by as­sign­ing spe­cific flight paths be­tween pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tions and UAV den­sity at any given time by the re­gional DGCA or the Air­port Au­thor­ity of In­dia of­fice. Evo­lu­tion of fly­ing pro­to­cols and pro­mul­ga­tions will be done by in­volv­ing all stake­hold­ers. The pub­lic too be en­cour­aged to re­port near-miss and haz­ardous op­er­a­tions by UAVs to en­hance pub­lic safety. Any care­less­ness or vi­o­la­tion of the laid down norms should be dealt with se­verely.

Each UAV ac­quired or built in In­dia, should have a unique etched num­ber, duly reg­is­tered and trace­able to its owner. The fly­ers en­ti­tled to han­dle the UAV should have for­mal train­ing and each flight plan should be recorded on­line with the DGCA for foren­sic ac­count­abil­ity. The UAV is an ag­ile piece of air­borne equip­ment, but its low-cost and easy avail­abil­ity should be mon­i­tored to pre­vent mis­use.

In dis­as­ter man­age­ment, UAVs can be ef­fec­tive in restor­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion, as­sess­ing da­m­age in the af­fected ar­eas and fly­ing in small suc­cor and emer­gency sup­plies

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