India bans drone imports

With immediate effect, India has banned all commercial drone imports into the country.

You heard that right.

India’s Directorate of Foreign Trade said in a notification on Wednesday that it was prohibiting the importation of semi-knocked down (SKD) and completely knocked down (CKD) drone kits.

“SKD and CKD essentially come as a single package per drone which simply needs to be assembled,” a government official told local media. “That will not be allowed. But components, if they come separately, they will be allowed.”

Ostensibly, the decision has been taken to boost the production of locally made drones; which in the current state will struggle to hold their own against the traditional heavy hitters on the world commercial drone market if the Indian market remains free for all players.

It is the ambition of the government to become the world’s drone hub by the year 2030.

At the moment it would be safe to declare that the title of world drone hub currently belongs to China by a country mile, as the country houses some of the biggest drone makers in the world today – DJI, XAG and EHang among them.

Now these three companies, like many others across the world, which include Parrot in France, Skydio and Zipline in the USA and Wingcopter in Germany have to contend with another big market for their products being closed for protectionism reasons.

Because the company enjoys a near 70 percent grip on the world’s commercial drone market, DJI’s struggle to remain relevant on the USA market has been the most documented; but the same has been true for almost all Chinese technology companies that had spread into North America

Now they face a total blackout from another really big market in their southern neighbours, India.

“It’s very simple… to promote our “Made in India” drones,” said Amber Dubey, Joint Secretary of the Ministry of Civil Aviation in India, when asked to explain the government’s rationale for this drastic decision.

“Also, there is a security element to it. Most of these drones do end up being… I mean there are allegations – not much is proven (of course) – that there is a risk of malware and spyware. I as a drone user might be transmitting some images to a foreign country without my knowledge.”

Dubey acknowledged that at the moment India would struggle to match up to the top commercial drone producing countries, but insisted that it was important to take the first step to give a platform to local start-ups and entrepreneurs, following the passing of a policy to liberalise a vast amount of airspace for drone technology research last August.

“In August 2021, we came up with the liberalized drone policy,” Dubey said. “Then, we released the drone airspace map which freed up almost 85-90 percent of India’s green zone, where you can just go and fly for business or for personal needs.

India will offer $16 million worth of incentives for start-up drone makers under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s plan to stimulate local production of drones and drone technology products, which can compete with the best on the world stage.

“Then the Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) policy was also released last month, followed by the drone type certification policy. So, there’re a series of steps that we are taking… because first comes the policy, then the demand and supply follow. We’ve set the foundation that was needed. And now you’re seeing some very sharp brains, who could’ve taken up high-paying jobs in the corporate sector, running drone startups straight out of college.”

The secretary went on to declare that the start-ups setting up shop in the industry today would have exploded into something bigger and more significant in the coming four years.

It remains to be seen of course, but it has to be acknowledged too, that they have to start from somewhere. Whether banning all drone imports (there are exceptions for drones purchased for defence and security purposes; drones imported for research and development purposes, and for owners who already have their drones and need to import stand-alone repair components for them) is the right first step is something only time will tell.

A local drone manufacturing start-up, TechEagle Innovations, has already been involved in a major government and WEF supported project to deliver vaccines in the country. But the industries that have discovered indispensable value in drone technology are so vast – agriculture, mining, delivery, healthcare, security, policing, emergency and disaster response; and surveillance among them – covering a majority of these in ten years would be something of a miracle.

Not to mention the software side; unmanned traffic management and drone integration into the airspace. It has to be said that the country already has several drone manufacturing companies, that make drones for various industries, as it does companies that produce drone traffic management software.

The government seems willing; and we all know what they say about where there is a will.


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