Regulating drones:policy in place, but is DGCA equipped

Last Updated 12 September 2018, 20:19 IST

While cataloguing the numerous, and steadily increasing, benefits of drones in scores of facets of our daily lives, it is easy to ignore the fact that drone technologies also pose a threat to our quality of life. Their ability to fly largely unchallenged into private and public spaces, take high-definition pictures from stand-off ranges and even transmit them live, work autonomously or under rogue control, carry small but potentially lethal payloads into unauthorised and sensitive areas, and trespass into civil and military air space, are safety and security hazards that come as expensive collaterals to the rewards the technology offers to mankind.

Understandably, national security concerns have prompted governments the world over to resist proliferation of drones in their respective air spaces. However, industrial lobbies motivated by lucre, have inexorably triumphed over establishment trepidation and, gradually, nations have been relenting by putting into place regulations that permit profit-making uses of drones while ensuring reasonable control over their operations to prevent unfettered, free-for-all invasions of air space and privacy.

Australia was perhaps the first to put comprehensive drone regulations into place as far back as 2002 while the US started toning down its antipathy towards drones only in 2015 and started permitting fairly wide use while working towards a comprehensive policy, which it released in July this year, declaring US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) the exclusive authority over drone operations. Europe and Britain, a bit more cautious and deliberate in their approach, have regulations slated to become effective next year. The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), the United Nations body watching over air safety, is still working on standards and recommended practices (SARPs) on drone operations.

India started its effort to regulate drones with the Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) issuing a Public Notice on the subject in October 2014 after Mumbai-based Francesco’s Pizzeria used a four-rotor drone to deliver food from its Lower Parel outlet to a customer in nearby Worli. The notice stated that the DGCA was in the process of formulating drone regulations and that, in the interim, no non-government agency, organisation, or individual could launch a drone in Indian civil airspace for any purpose whatsoever.

However, the notice had no effect and the use of drones continued to rise, with industrial entities, universities, government departments and small businesses racing to exploit the highly affordable munificence of drones (produced indigenously or imported). In 2016, the DGCA issued a draft Air Transport Circular dealing with the ‘Operation of Civil Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS)’; this was followed by a draft ‘Civil Aviation Requirement (CAR) on Operation of Civil Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS)’ in 2017, which was circulated to the general public and to ministries and departments concerned for comments and suggestions.

Bureaucratic wrangling between the three main ministries involved (Civil Aviation, Home Affairs and Defence) delayed the finalisation of regulations to the end of August this year when the CAR was issued; its provisions are to be effective from December 1.

One of the challenges, perhaps the biggest, is the methodology of registering, authenticating, managing fleets and automating and integrating operations in what will become a rather crowded air space. An initiative called ‘Digital Sky’ is projected to be an online system for handling applications for registering drones and operators and granting permission to fly drones in India.

Digital Sky was to be introduced after the CAR, but now its link is expected to be operational on the DGCA website from December 1 itself. It envisions a 3D-mapping of air space, filing of digital flight plans through a dedicated portal with drone and pilot details, and recording origin and destination coordinates.

Decidedly, it is an ambitious plan, fraught with tribulations, as India has not even been able to achieve automation in normal air traffic control. The massive size itself is a challenge. Moreover, the CAR, as its title signifies, purports to deal only with “Operation of Civil Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS); the implication is that unmanned systems with autonomous capability (and with no remote pilots) are in a grey area. The onslaught of Artificial Intelligence into all technologies has already enabled autonomous operation of drones and is rapidly disrupting the way they are operated. So, this could be a problem area.

The unrestricted operation of micro drones (weighing 250 gm to 2 kg) up to 200 ft is also a new addition into height bands theoretically usable by medical, search and rescue or fire-fighting helicopters. How the Digital Sky will coordinate drone flights with other air traffic is yet to be seen.

Also, inherent to the stipulation in the CAR that RPAS owned/operated by NTRO, ARC and other central intelligence agencies are exempt from obtaining a Unique Identification Number (UIN); the implication is that they would not be detectable on Digital Sky and would be ‘Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs)’, thus posing an air safety threat. As numbers grow, this threat could become unacceptable.

Another problem is the fact that the DGCA, which has the task of overseeing drone operations, is already short of manpower even for its present tasks related to air safety oversight. It is easy to imagine that despite DGCA’s best intentions and a comprehensive policy in place, actual field oversight of drone operations would be far beyond DGCA’s capability. The exploding rate of drone proliferation is thus poised to present ever-escalating problems of safety and security.

Yet another issue is that of enforcing that every drone is registered in accordance with the new regulation. It is unrealistic to hope that DGCA will be able to undertake that responsibility. Perhaps it is time to look at strategic support to DGCA’s vision by controlling the supply end of drones, that is, by restricting and monitoring manufacture and import of drones. However, given the fact that we took a long time to put a policy in place, permitting the local drone manufacturing industry to flourish, managing the supply end could also be a daunting task.

(The writer is a former Chief Operations Officer of an airline).

(Published 12 September 2018, 18:54 IST)

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