India's new drone policy will allow for experimentation and expansion of drone use in agriculture, mining, Geo-spatial mapping and logistics, experts say.
The Drone Rules, 2021 replaces the UAS Rules, 2021 which was published in March 2021 after consultation with academics and end-users.
The Ministry of Civil Aviation stated that the rules were built on a premise of "trust, self-certification and non-intrusive monitoring" which has made it easy for end-users and organisations to use drones.
"The regulatory intervention has really allowed experimentation, has allowed for us to go into safe environments. I think two things will happen as an outcome of this policy. The use cases for which the need is real and urgent will scale rapidly.
"On the civil side, because experimentation is possible, more use cases will get validated to the commercial level. For example, asset inspection will become validated in commercial level. You will be able to do them in remote areas without getting into regulatory logjams," Mehta told BOOM.
Stating that the new regulations are close to international standards Rahat Kulshreshtha, Founder and CEO, Quidich, and President, Drone Federation of India believes that organisations and end-users can now come up with better plans for projects.
"Now we can actually plan. It has been a challenge so far to plan for anything with an uncertainty in regulation for a business. What you really need is today is to be able to say, I can actually do these number of projects, I can do these many number of films, or I can do these many number of mining establishments. But the uncertainty involved so far with the lack of clear regulation caused a lot of businesses like ours to not be able to plan, understand and project.
"A lot of companies which have been around for five six years and have really built niche business models are now suddenly having an opportunity to able to expand across the country in a much larger way," Kulshreshtha said.
Edited excerpts of the interview follow
What really are drones and what can they enable?
Ankit Mehta: Drones are simply very very small aircrafts which cannot typically host a human being on board. Usually an autopilot operates it and gives it the ability to fly without needing operator control, but it is able to move as per the directions of the operator based on the system in command.
So, you can think of it as a very small aircraft, or a very small helicopter, or what you usually see in weddings today, these small aircrafts with four rotors which can operate in a very tight and constrained manner.
Rahat, how do you view drones and how do you put them to best use?
Rahat Kulshreshtha: I think the easiest way to describe what drones would be is we have seen automobiles as an entire industry that have come and done different things. So, a car with four wheels can take you from one place to another, but a bigger truck can do something else. Similarly, drones are now these devices which rather than being on the ground can be in the sky and are able to all these different applications but in XYZ access -- something that takes off from the ground and can really fly around. It can be with a camera, it can be used in films, it can be used in broadcast, and it also can be a camera that can give you your surveillance footage.
It can be a camera that can give you information for mining, for road surveillance, or progress monitoring, cell phone tower inspection. It is essentially a new industry being formed with devices that are flying up in the air, casually called drones, which have multiple applications across industries. Like Ankit said, you have got these four motors, or six motors or eight motors and got different kinds of drones that can fly with the wings or two motors at the back; so different configurations of them. But one of the key aspects of them is that they are flying and are aerial and have very exciting uses.
What the situation was before these new rules came in and what is it today?
AM: We really need to track the policy all the way back from before 2014. Before 2014, there was not any restriction, the industry was very new, it was one of our early prototypes in 2009, which was a part of the movie, 3 Idiots, which essentially created a buzz about drones in our country and slowly and slowly people started using these devices. And when probably the usage became a little bit more, the Government came in first with a ban on all private use of drones. That was back in 2014.
From about 2016, the Government actually started working on regulations and draft policy started to come out. In 2018, the first civil aviation rules regarding drones were actually announced, where in India had come up with a very unique policy called, No Permissions, No Take Off-- which says that if the Government's central servers did not give permission for the drone to take off, it would not be able to take off.
From there we started getting into operationalizing that regime and there were a lot of bottlenecks as it was a slightly more involved task and there were other areas like Map Release which were not ready. So while this was taking time, there was a lot of clamour to improve upon the policy to make it a little bit more useful. But instead of improving the policy and removing the lacunae from the previous policy, in 2021 the draft that came at the beginning of the year, actually made it more complicated and cumbersome to actually comply with the rules and there was a lot of industry backlash because of that.
The government listened to us and they also realised that: Yes, probably the rules in 2021 were not likely to be implementable format that would make any one's life easy. So, they went back to the drawing board and have come up with a new policy which is finally opening up the sector in a manner that is rational and is going to allow us in future to build actual operational scenario-based improvements in the policy rather than presumed risk cover that did not actually allow anything to take off and do any meaningful operations.
What can you tell us about the military applications of drone and the rest of the drone, and how do these two worlds connect with each other or not?
AM: Drones are a dual-use device, particularly when you use them for surveillance or for load carrying. You can either use it for doing missions which involve getting imagery from it when you are advancing in the enemy territory or you're trying to protect territory in your own domain.
For example, they are used in all the areas where insurgency is happening in the country. So that is a very defence homeland security kind of use, which was not a part of regulations and areas that come under the defence forces of India were exempt from rules and regulations. However, the other side was put under regulations.
Initially, the 2014 ban only prevented private enterprises and individuals from using drones, and eventually Homeland security was brought into cover and in 2020, it was taken out of the cover of the policy, and now again is back under the cover as far as Homeland security is concerned. So, it has been a little bit of a merry go round as far this area is concerened.
What are the kinds of applications that you have been using and in the general commercial, entertainment and in the leisure space? Do these new policy rules have an impact, if so how so?
RK: I cannot even begin to explain what a welcome change this new regulation has been because we have been sitting in a place where since 2014 there has been a complete uncertainty over what is going to happen in this entire industry. And that is a seven-year gap that we are talking about.
Today we are at a place where there is regulation which will eventually now allow you to fly and operate drones legally. Actually some of the applications that we have been working on have been really very interesting. We have been working heavily in the broadcast and movie eco system where, essentially, what the drone is being able to do is replace helicopters.
Traditionally, in film and media to be able to get nice, wide shots when the film was starting off to be able to give a context of a city, or a particular location, or a particular sports match, the helicopter would be brought in for this wide expansive shot. Now suddenly, you look at the drone, which is 1/100th of the cost, is extremely easy to operate, does not require a take-off and landing position, does not require a helipad to be able to give you exactly that and it allows for these really dynamic and magnificent shots across cities and stadiums.
So, we are now covering sports across the globe using drones to give this beautiful view of all of these different stadiums. If you just take IPL for example, people sitting at home never get a sense of, "ok, this stadium is in Ranchi, and this stadium is in Mumbai" when you are seeing the game from inside. Suddenly, the moment, when you give the context of the drone, you have the Queen's Necklace on the side, a beautiful view and suddenly the audience has context to this stadium is in this city, and this is how the stadium looks in the context of the city. I think that is a very very, one small little use case of how drones can be used, and that is how we have been using them.
Have the new rules changed or made things simpler?
RK: In the previous regime it was extremely hard to be able to navigate the regulation and the regulations themselves were quite restrictive not just for the industry. What is actually interesting is that they were quite restrictive for the regulator themselves. When they say that it has gone from 25 forms to five forms; it was hard for the industry to fill in 25 forms, but on the other end somebody had to process the 25 forms and make sense of them and make decisions based on all of that data, which actually was not really required.
What the new regulation has actually done is really built it on a fundamental idea of trust. The people that they are regulating it for are for people who are going to abide by the law. They actually just need a regulating framework to do it in the right way, to ensure mishaps are not happening. The people who are going to misuse drones are going to do so with or without a law.
This is really what the fundamental change that has happened in the regulation is. I think this was mentioned in the Prime Minister's tweet as well; it is based around the idea of trust. So that people who genuinely want to do and want to do it legally abide by the law and this is the law that allows them to be able to do it now and for all of the service providers, manufacturers who want to be able to go and do these applications, it will become a lot easier with the new regulation.
As you look ahead, with these rules and in general, what are the new applications that we can look at, what is the innovation ecosystem looking like, what could we expect, what should we expect with the new regulatory intervention as well as the host of technology?
AM: The regulatory intervention has really allowed experimentation, has allowed for us to go into safe environments that are generally not crowded, not likely to cause harm to anybody and do whatever we feel like doing. Within the right restrictions and the right control that you cannot actually mount ammunition on board, weapon of war on board, or even take hazardous chemicals or something like that in the air. Within those restrictions, it is a fair logical way to look at it. I think two things will happen as an outcome of this policy. The use cases for which the need is real and urgent will scale rapidly because the last entire year has actually converted drones from being a good-to-have equipment to a must-have equipment. If you remember the launch of SVAMITVA scheme, where today even ideaForge's drones are involved in creating land records for all our rural population. Those use cases are only going to expand in a really really fast manner.
Similarly, the whole surveillance piece to monitor movement of people during lockdowns and those kinds of emergencies was something that really facilitated operations on ground by the forces and then put them out of harm's way while that was happening. So those use cases scaled. Of course on the defence side, I do not even need to say what happened with China and what happened in Nagorno-Karabakh. That story is written and everybody knows that we cannot live without drones in that sector.
On the civil side what will happen is that because experimentation is possible, more use cases will get validated to the commercial level. For example, asset inspection will become validated in commercial level. You will be able to validate deliveries at a commercial level, you will be able to do them in remote areas without getting into regulatory logjams where probably you were not impacting anybody anyhow in that one sense right other than creating a genuine impact on ground.
You will see a lot of applications around spraying, a lot of applications around sanitation, in terms of delivering medicines, regular goods. But I do expect that a lot of it will happen in remote areas to begin with and slowly as we have the safety mechanisms cleared, like they mandate NPNT for certain zones, they mandate remote identification and all of that; more and more urban use cases will further open up, which is where a lot of scale is also going to present itself.
You have mentioned delivery. Is that a science fiction image of a drone bringing a pizza or essentially an Amazon package to your home particularly in dense cities like Mumbai? Is that now within reach?
AM: In some areas, it will become possible. As long as it is happening in a region where it is not likely to impact a large crowd, near an airport or near a sensitive area, experimentation will begin. But whether it will become mainstream depends on the economics of the application and I believe economics today is in order of a magnitude or two higher than the competition it has from movement on ground. So remote areas where there is a lot of support or funding by either the Government or other charitable organisations, it may be viable. But it really cannot compete with movement on ground right now.
The other area that I forgot to mention is actually agriculture. There is going to be a huge impact not just from spraying but precision agriculture where imaging can be used to reduce or improve the amount of fertilizers or pesticides on a farm based on the evidence given by the imagery a drone does.
Rahat, what can you do with these new rules now? What do these new rules allow you to do? And what are you thinking ahead or what are you planning ahead?
RK: I think that the answer is in your question itself. Now we can actually plan. It has been a challenge so far to plan for anything with an uncertainty in regulation for a business. What you really need is today is to be able to say, I can actually do these number of projects, I can do these many number of films, or I can do these many number of mining establishments. But the uncertainty involved so far with the lack of clear regulation caused a lot of businesses like ours to not be able to plan, understand and project. How do you figure what is my next best step? Will I be allowed to fly in that area? Will I be able to do a certain kind of operation?
So, I think the key that is going to get unlocked and the whole thing is around planning and projection and really being able to scale up a lot of these opportunities. I think a lot of companies which have been around for five six years and have really built niche business model whether it is mining, road surveys, surveillance, media and entertainment, there are now suddenly having an opportunity to able to expand across the country in a much larger way because so far you were only being able to do the big projects because you could only get permissions for all of those.
But suddenly, you will now have the opportunity to put the same technology in a lot more places because the cost is going to come down with competition coming in.
What about recreational use? Can I now use that drone because there was always that fear that police would come and catch you?
RK: Sure, absolutely and I think that the regulation has been simplified in such a way that for somebody who is an end user and is not looking at heavily from an commercial application can also just understand those 11 pages and really make sense and make sure that they are not making the mistakes and getting on the wrong side of the law.
If you are an operator that is really trying to fly a drone which weighs less than 250 grams, you have very clear idea as to what to do as a nano drone operator, which is most of the people who are buying for recreational use. It is really simplified for every level of drone that you are buying, where you can fly and where you cannot fly, and what you can do and what you can do for hobby use versus commercial use. So, it is really going to open it up and anybody who is a social media creator or somebody who creates content outside will have access and give these beautiful shots.
How we are now different from the best case drone regulation elsewhere in the world? Are there any key things that we have to do to catch up, if we have to catch up?
RK: One of the key things that has happened as a part of this regulation is we have come very close to a benchmark of what is happening across the globe. What we had in terms of regulations before this was extremely tight and was really curbing the industry both in terms of manufacturers and service providers. But what they have done right now is that they really bench marked it across regulations in the UK, Australia.
We as a company have operated across 18 countries over the last two years and looking at this regulation and then bench marking it at everything that is happening elsewhere in the world, we are actually really up there. What is going to take now is to really put those checks and balances in place, make sure that processes that are involved as a part of the regulation. So, if a certification of a drone is required, that process needs to be streamlined, and all of those little processes that will come out of each of those paragraphs of the regulation, as long as we can streamline them and make those clear, it will really open up and it will really be at par with everything in the world, if not more.
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