India slowly warming up to the goodness of drones

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, drones have proved to be quite utilitarian. Not only have they helped with surveillance and crowd control, but also have been used to sanitize areas. While this use case is a recent one, there are multiple other such industries including agriculture, power and utility, and mining, where unmanned aerial systems could be used. Apart from business use, drones have resonated wonderfully with recreational users in international markets.

Back in 2014 – just when consumer drones were becoming more popular, thanks to DJI’s Phantom series of drones – Indian authorities banned their operations after they were spooked by a pizza delivery.

This ban restricted the drone ecosystem from flowering in India; hence the country tailed behind trendsetters like China and the U.S in the global drone revolution. Shenzhen-based DJI, especially rose to the occasion and constantly transpired to push drones into the mainstream. As of 2018, the company had a 70% share in the global consumer drone market and generated revenues of over $2 billion.

The DJI Mavic 2 Pro drone redefines the possibilities of aerial photos
DJI Mavic 2 Pro

While the ban on operation of drones was lifted eventually by the government, in 2019, it didn’t necessarily make it easier for the ecosystem to thrive. In fact, the new regulations placed by the government agency are quite stringent and unlike that of any other country in the world.

Restrictive Regulations

Primary among these new set of guidelines is the NPNT (No Permission, No Clause) clause that makes it mandatory for drone manufacturers to configure the drone with such software and hardware that the drone shall not be able to fly unless the flight has been given regulatory approvals through the Digital Sky platform.

While getting a permit is one problem, there are further restrictions on where you can fly drones. Flying a drone is not as simple as buying one that’s compliant with regulations. These drones also need to be registered with the DCGA for a license that needs to be engraved on a fire-resistant plate and pasted on the drone. And each subsequent flight needs to be approved via the platform.

Pilots too need to be certified and obtain an ‘Unmanned Aerial Operator Permit’ (UAOP) which costs INR 25,000. But even after obtaining these permissions, a pilot may not necessarily get a permit through the Digital Sky platform to fly the drones.

Only the smallest drones have been exempted from the above-mentioned regulations. But these are drones that weigh less than 250 grams and aren’t as utilitarian. Besides, these drones can’t be flown above a height of 50 feet.

The Road Ahead

While India seems to be far from a conducive environment for drones to ‘fly’, a recent draft published by the Ministry of Civil Aviation seems to ready the stage for beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) drone operations. The draft rules propose the establishment of dedicated drone ports and corridors in “permitted areas if warranted by the nature and requirements” of drone operations.

As it stands now, the government is inviting feedback from the industry and various stakeholders. After receiving comments and possibly considering them, the ministry will finalise the rules within 30 days.

While industry sources considered this to be an important step from a commercialisation perspective, the drone industry still has a long way to go. While the restrictive nature of the regulations can be understood to a point – considering drone regulations are still developing worldwide – they might prove to be inimical for the industry in the longer run.

Besides, India has not taken any considerable steps with respect to the manufacturing of drones in India. We even spoke to a Delhi-based startup that has manufactured drones for various purposed in India. According to the founder, integral parts such as motors are still imported from countries like China.

Hence, on that front, incentives and support from the government can help kickstart local production. Such measures will help reduce the costs of manufacturing drones in India which are currently much more expensive than their foreign counterparts. Apart from manufacturing, skilling and training is another challenge that needs to be addressed in the coming time.

Drones can have a far-reaching impact on several industries. Making the obtaining of information easier, making real-time surveillance possible, and by helping with the delivery of payloads, are just some of the few ways in which these unmanned aerial systems will benefit.

The active use of drones during the COVID-19 pandemic has definitely given the sector an impetus and we can only hope for the government to take suitable measures to attempt and make up for the setback that the industry experienced due to the ban.

Source: Mashable India

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