Author : Anirudh Rastogi, Managing Partner, TRA.
The drone industry: potential and paranoia
Globally, drones are being deployed for innumerable applications across various sectors. They are being used for police patrolling, land surveys, aerial photography and cinematography, mining reconnaissance, survey of power transmission lines, cargo delivery, and so on. India is a global giant in the software industry. The service capabilities of drones are greatly dependent on its software capabilities and Indian drone companies are in a unique position to harness India’s strength in this area. While the drone industry promises to be a multi-billion dollar industry, regulations in India are pulling the industry back from ‘taking off’.
Since October of 2014, drones are banned from taking to the Indian airspace without “prior authorisation”. The ban was implemented by a circular of the Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) on account of safety and security concerns. While the circular provides for approvals to fly on a case by case basis, no approvals have been granted to any private organisation thus far. A comprehensive regulatory framework for the industry has been in the works for several months and only a draft of the proposed guidelines has been released thus far. Furthermore, the draft guidelines are limited to the operation of drones, once the same have been developed, tried and tested. It fails to provide the framework for design, manufacture of prototypes and test-flights. The DGCA needs to provide a framework for R&D on priority. If not, then India will stand to lose the promising inroads it has made towards becoming a significant player in this nascent industry. Industry in countries with progressive regulations that support R&D will make significant progress and eventually emerge as both thought leaders and industry leaders in the domain.
The balancing act
Of course, the Indian regulator needs to grapple with genuine safety concerns. — drones falling of the sky are unlikely to be a pretty sight. However, what is important is to build a regulatory environment that balances the interests of the drone industry and safety concerns. It is a tough balance to strike and the only way to learn will be through trial and error. It is essential that the regulators accept a higher than zero risk level.
In the interregnum
Even as the draft guidelines are debated for final implementation, it is essential that limited-scope R&D continues to build and maintain the impetus of our indigenous drones industry. As of now, there is a standstill.
The DGCA should borrow from the United States, wherein the Federal Aviation Authority has issued special airworthiness certificates for UAVs for test / experimental flights on a case-by-case basis [FAA Order 8130.34C]. This is to transition gradually to more routine certification processes. The FAA has so far issued over 100 experimental airworthiness certificates to over 16 different models of unmanned aircraft. These certificates are temporary in nature and permit industry to undertake R&D / conduct test flights in restricted conditions.
The DGCA should, in consultation with concerned agencies, designate test sites in various parts of the country where prototypes may be tested in a controlled environment under the strict watch of the DGCA. Test sites also tend to make the R&D process cost effective as resources for setting up test sites are then rationalised. Government-run test sites will allow R&D to continue while providing the regulator an opportunity to deeply understand the operational issues relating to UAS on a first-hand basis and to inform the dialogue concerning the use of UAS technologies both locally and internationally.
A limited revival of the now deleted Civil Aviation Requirements relating to Construction, Certification and Operation of Experimental and Amateur- Build Aircraft (Section 2, Series F, Part XVIII, Issue I dated 23rd October 1992) should be considered. These regulations provided guidance on the building and certification of amateur built aircraft in the Experimental Category. Many new ideas and concepts originate with small aircraft built by the non- professional designer. This activity will be destroyed by excessive regulation suited to large corporations whose commercial objectives in the development process are more immediate.
In the longer run, it is hoped that a comprehensive regulatory framework for drone design, prototype manufacture and test-flights would be put in place. It is essential that the framework is simple and performance based, so as to allow a small startup company or SMEs to start low-risk operations under minimal rules. Over a period of time these rules may be made more stringent, just as certificates will become more permissive and the industry too would have evolved.
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