Regulate drones, but don't be overbearing

Regulate drones, but don't be overbearing

The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) last week put out a draft regulation on civil use of  drones and has sought comments. A regulatory framework to enable commercial use of drones for tasks like photography, doorstep delivery and even passenger transport is expected to be ready by the end of the year. India will then join countries that allow drones to be used for civilian applications. Many government agencies, especially the military and police forces, have been using them for over a decade. They are deployed for crowd surveillance during major religious festivals, for search and relief operations during calamities, and in fighting militant infestations and, of course, war. Of late, state-owned organisations and private firms have been using drones for oil and gas pipeline inspections and crop assessment. Last year, drone enthusiasts even founded India's first drone racing league.

Once a policy for civil use of drones is in place, it is expected to spur the use of drones in a diverse range of areas, such as agricultural and industrial applications, aerial photography, recreational drone racing, and delivering goods at doorsteps. The current civil aviation rules do not cover the use of drones for civilian purposes or their sale and purchase. Importing them is next to impossible, which is why most of the estimated 1,000-odd drones in civilian hands in India are sourced from grey markets. The DGCA, in fact, restricted its use by civilians when it found out that a drone was used to deliver a pizza in Mumbai in October 2014. However, it relented last April by issuing guidelines for registering unmanned aircraft systems, including drones, and obtaining permits to fly them. The latest move is a continuation in that direction.

Throwing open the drone industry to experimentation and innovation will benefit India. World over, aviation regulators are grappling with the task of regulating an ever-increasing number of drones in a crowded airspace. Last month, President Trump asked the US Federal Aviation Administration to allow unmanned aerial systems to expand operations. The EU, too, hopes to have a comprehensive air traffic control system for drones by 2019. While the draft norms have put in place some restrictions in the form of no-fly zones for drones, enforcement will be the key. Two months ago, a pilot of a commercial aircraft spotted a drone taking pictures around New Delhi's Indira Gandhi International Airport, leading to suspension of air traffic for hours. While regulation of drone traffic needs to address security and privacy concerns, it should not be unnecessarily overbearing. India's terrain and lack of road infrastructure in remote areas offer opportunities for significant benefits from this technology.

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