The Skies are Free

A month ago, in a post titled “Free the Skies”, I pointed out that the drone regulations issued in March this year, were draconian and unnecessarily burdensome. Last week, a scant 4 months after they were issued, the government repealed the March 2021 regulations replacing them with a new framework that is more progressive and industry-friendly.

This is a longer and link-enhanced version of the article that first appeared in The Mint. You can read the original article here. Apologies for the corny title but I so rarely get the opportunity for wordplay across two articles in close proximity that I trust you will indulge me this once.

A few weeks ago, I dedicated an entire article to the Unmanned Aircraft Regulations that India’s ministry of civil aviation had issued in March 2021. I was disappointed by how retrograde these regulations were and the unnecessarily onerous burden it placed on a fledgling industry:

Under the 2018 framework, no approvals were required for research and development. The 2021 Rules, on the other hand, require researchers to obtain as many as 10 permissions in order to be able to use drones. Similarly, the number of approvals needed to manufacture and import drones has increased, as have permissions required for drone operations. In addition, the new regulations impose fines so steep that, with compounding, they can be as high as ₹1.5 crore, which would ring a certain death knell for drone startups.

I argued that these regulations were so draconian that any hope we might have had for a drone renaissance had become vanishingly slim. Last week, in what can only be described as an unprecedented volte face, the ministry repealed the regulations it had issued a scant four months previously, replacing them with a far more progressive framework.

The New Drone Regulations

There is much to applaud in the Draft Drone Rules 2021, but if I were to pick just one overarching feature, it has to be how deeply technology has been integrated into the regulatory framework. If implemented as described, this could well be the country’s first working example of ‘regtech’ — a regulatory evolution I have been waiting on for a long time.

Central to this futuristic regulatory framework is the Digital Sky platform, a portal through which almost all compliances relevant to the drone ecosystem are intended to be managed. If you own a drone, you will have to register it on Digital Sky in order to obtain an identification number that will uniquely identify your drone in the territory of India. That identification number will be permanently associated with you; so, if you plan to transfer the drone to anyone else, you will have to return to Digital Sky to record that transfer. Similarly, if the drone is lost or permanently damaged, it is to Digital Sky that you have to go for de-registration.

Digital Sky will also host a detailed airspace map for drone operations that will divide the entire country into red, yellow and green zones. Prior permission will only be required for drone operations in the yellow and red zones, and, because the airspace map for drone operations will be programmatically accessible, drone pilots will be able to load their proposed flight plan directly onto the portal to determine whether the path they intend their drones to traverse will require prior approval.

New Technologies

The new drone regulations also refer to a number of technologies, which, even though unlikely to be in place by the time the rules come into force, could well be implemented soon. These include geo-fencing (to ensure that a drone only flies within a specified set of geospatial coordinates), real-time tracking beacons (to constantly transmit the live-action speed, location and altitude of a drone) and the no-permission-no-take-off technology I have spoken of before (that will completely automate flight approvals in yellow and red zones).

Also imminent is a framework for drone traffic management that will facilitate the creation of drone corridors—potentially even through red and yellow zones—that can be used by drone delivery companies and emergency services. Once in place, these dedicated corridors will greatly improve the automated delivery of everything, from daily groceries to life-saving medicines, and enable emergency services to rapidly reach people in remote locations.

Optimistic … but cautiously

But as much as these new regulations are an improvement over those they are about to replace, there are still a number of issues that could do with more clarity. For instance, even though the definitions of red and yellow zones have been spelt out in the regulations, we will need to wait till physical areas are actually delineated before we can confirm the extent to which drone operations have actually been liberalised. Red zones are defined as those areas over which drone flight will be permitted only under exceptional circumstances, while yellow zones are those within which drone pilots have to coordinate their operations with a relevant air traffic controller. If these definitions are interpreted so broadly as to have large restricted zones, drone flights in virtually every part of the country will need prior approvals, which would make a mockery of the proposed liberalisation.

Ideally, it is only over airports—where drones can interfere with aircraft operations—that drone operations should be prohibited. In real terms, this would mean a restriction over the physical perimeter of the airport and areas around it where planes on their final descent are low enough for drone collision to pose a real risk. Given that the ceiling for drone operations is anyway 400 feet, the yellow zone need not extend any further than 5km from an airport’s boundary wall, as no aircraft will ever be lower than 1,000 feet above ground level beyond that point.

Also of concern are the sweeping penal consequences in the draft drone regulations. According to Rule 33, any failure to comply is punishable under Section 10(2) of the Aircrafts Act, 1934, a provision that stipulates up to three months imprisonment for offenders. Given how broadly it has been worded, even a minor infraction could land a drone operator in jail. This is a risk that is bound to have a chilling effect on the industry.

Finally, while it is indeed commendable that almost all compliance obligations are intended to be fulfilled through a portal, until we can actually see Digital Sky in operation, we will not know if it is going to be as automatic and presence-less as we are being lead to believe — or if the platform will, instead, allow for regulatory discretion. Regular readers will recall that the first time I mentioned the platform was in 2018. Given that the inordinate delay in implementation of this platform has seen an increase in the amount of compliance before this latest reform I am sure I will be forgiven for wanting to see it in action before providing my endorsement.

That said, I don’t really think there is much cause for much concern. We must not forget that in framing these rules, the government took the unprecedented step of rescinding its earlier draft, based on public feedback. I have no doubt that it will have no hesitation addressing these remaining few issues once they have been pointed out.