Flying drones in India? Things you must know to keep security hawks happy

India, unlike some of the other countries, has had a very stringent drone policy but is slowly opening up

Flying drones in India? Things you must know to keep security hawks happy
Drones are being increasingly used to deliver services while cutting down on human contact in the times of Covid-19. Image courtesy: Unsplash/Jared Brashier

In this age of the Covid-19 pandemic when human-to-human contact is sought to be kept at a bare minimum, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones have assumed great importance. In a sense, the exigency brought about by the pandemic has demonstrated to the wary Indian authorities that drones would be the go-to mechanisms for service delivery under the changed circumstances. 

Thus drones have been used by the law enforcement agencies in various cities of India to monitor and enforce the lockdown. They have also been used for surveillance in riot-prone areas. The Railways had procured drones as a force multiplier for the deployed security forces. 

Drones have been used to spray disinfectants and it has tremendous potential in this regard for sanitising public spaces like airports, railway stations, parks, SEZs, warehouses, government offices and so on. These UAVs can carry more disinfectant than a human can carry easily and can sanitise a wider area than possible by traditional methods. What is more important, it keeps human operators out of harm's way. 

Drones have also been used to measure human body temperature in crowded places, to control pests, and by real estate developers for providing virtual tours to prospective buyers. Drones have also been used for surveys for property validation, to measure the production of natural resources, for maintenance of power distribution infrastructure and map city drains, among other many other things. In all these, the human operators can stay at a safe distance all the while and the work can be done faster and more easily than by humans. 

India, unlike some of the other countries, has had a very stringent drone policy. The country had imposed a blanket ban on drones in 2014 but began opening up, allowing UAVs to be operated for personal and commercial purposes from December 2018, and in January 2019, even considered expanding the application of drones. However, two recent attacks in the Middle East (in September 2019 and January 2020) tended to make the Indian aviation authorities circumspect again.

Source: Unsplash/Ricardo Gomez Angel

Drones in India are classified in terms of their weight and the altitude they can rise to is specified accordingly. Furthermore, the Indian airspace is divided into categories with varying restrictions on the operation of drones.

Drone Policy 1.0 came into effect on December 1, 2018, and on January 15, 2019, a draft Drone Policy 2.0 was released. However, until the latter is finalised, Drone Policy 1.0 stands. 

Salient features of Drone Policy 1.0

1. Drones can be flown along a Visual Line of Sight (VLOS), during daytime only and up to a maximum altitude of 400 feet. The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) may allow the testing of drones at night if a strong reason is furnished by the operator.

2. There are five categories of Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) or drones classified on the basis of their weight, namely nano (up to 250g), micro (250g-2kg), small (2-25kg), medium (25-150kg) and large (over 150kg).

According to the draft Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) Rules, 2020, published in a gazette notification in June 2020, a nano drone will be classified under the next higher category if it exceeds either a maximum speed of 15 metres/second in level flight or maximum attainable height of 15 metres and a range of 100 metres from the remote pilot.

3. The Digital Sky Platform helps the DGCA to regulate all drones in the micro category and above and those that fly above 50 feet.    

4. Drones other than those in the nano category, and those owned by the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO), ARC (Aviation Research Centre) and central intelligence agencies are required to be registered and issued with a Unique Identification Number (UIN).

5. All drone operators except those flying nano drones below 50 feet in uncontrolled airspace and in enclosed premises, micro drones below 200 feet in uncontrolled airspace and in enclosed premises, and those owned by NTRO, ARC and central intelligence agencies will require Unmanned Aerial Operator Permits (UAOP). These micro drones will, however, have to inform the local police 24 hours prior. Those owned by the agencies mentioned will also have to intimate the police. 

A UAOP will be valid for five years from the date of issue and is non-transferrable. Its renewal is subject to fresh security clearance from the ministry of home affairs (MHA).  

6. Drones need to be installed with Global Navigation Satellite System, Return-to-Home (RTH) option, flashing anti-collision strobe lights, RFID and GSM SIM card/No Permission-No Takeoff (NPNT) compliance for app-based real-time tracking, fire-resistant identification plate inscribed with UIN, flight controller with flight data logging capacity, SSR transponder or ADS-B OUT equipment, barometric equipment, geofencing capability, and detect and avoid capability.

7. The Indian airspace is divided into three zones with three different colour codes and varying levels of restrictions for flying drones. They are

A) Red zones: These are 'No Drone Zones' and cover the sky over and around airports, international border, Vijay Chowk in New Delhi, state secretariats in state capitals, strategic locations and vital/military installations. However, if the purpose of flying a drone in these areas is genuine, the DGCA may grant permission on a case-to-case basis subject to the approval of the ministry of defence.

B) Yellow zones: There are controlled airspaces where permission is required for flying. Flights plans are to be revealed and Air Defence Clearance (ADC)/Flight Information Centre (FIC) number have to be obtained.  

C) Green zones: These are uncontrolled airspaces where Air Traffic Control (ATC) services are not necessary or can't be provided due to practical reasons. Here, drone operators would only require to intimate the time and location of flights.

Source: Unsplash/Jason Blackeye

8. For every flight of a drone (except nano drone), operators need to request permission through a mobile app. The request is then allowed/turned down instantly through an automated process. A drone lacking a digital permit to fly will not be able to take off.

The draft UAS Rules, 2020 state that no unmanned aircraft shall be operated without obtaining permission through an online platform in the manner and procedure as specified by the Director-General of Civil Aviation (DGCA). The rules also require the operator to furnish a log of the flight through the online platform after each flight.

9. Drones need to be at least 25km away from the international border, including the Line of Control (LoC), Line of Actual Control (LoAC) and Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL).

Drones can't fly beyond 500 m into the sea from the coastline and within 3 km of the perimeter of military installations. They can't also be flown within 5 km of the perimeter of the airports in Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata, Bengaluru and Hyderabad and 3 km of the perimeter of other airports. 

Drones can also not be flown within a 5 km radius of Delhi's Vijay Chowk, within 2 km from the perimeter of strategic locations/vital installations notified by the MHA and within a radius of 3 km from state secretariat complexes. Eco-sensitive zones around national parks and wildlife sanctuaries should also not be on a drone's flight path.

Flying drones from moving vehicles, ships or aircraft are also prohibited. 

10. Explosives and humans or animals can't be carried on drones, but drones can be tested with a dummy at any site specified in the Civil Aviation Requirements (CAR). Delivery of food and other items is not permitted. Drones are not to be flown over private property, groups of people, public events, or stadia full of people without permission.

11. Drones can be put to agricultural use except for spraying pesticides unless specifically cleared.

The draft UAS Rules, 2020 state, "No person shall carry or cause or permit to be carried in any unmanned aircraft to, from, within or over India, any arms, ammunitions, munitions of war, implements of war, explosives and military stores, except with the written permission of the Central government and subject to the terms and conditions of such permission." The rules add that nothing can be dropped or projected from a UAS in motion except in a manner and procedure as specified by the DGCA.

The rules also state, "No person shall fly any UAS in such circumstances as, by reason of proximity to persons or property or aircraft or for other reason, to cause unnecessary danger to any person or property or aircraft." They prohibit flying of UAS "in a physical or mental condition or under the influence of intoxicating and psychoactive substances that may interfere with safe operation of the UAS".

12. Normally, only small, medium and large drones are allowed to operate in controlled airspaces. However, nano and micro drones can be allowed in controlled zones if they have a UIN and are UAOP and NPNT-compliant. For flying, they have also to ensure that no other manned or unmanned aircraft is nearby.

13. Pilot training is required for small, medium and large drones.

14. Drones, except those in enclosed premises, can be flown only between sunrise and sunset, in visual meteorological conditions with minimum ground visibility of 5 km and cloud ceiling not less than 1,500 feet, with surface winds of not more than 10 knots or as specified by the manufacturer, and when there is no precipitation (rain, hail or snow) or thunderstorm activities, or exceeding those specified by the manufacturer.   

15. To operate a drone, an individual has to be over 18 years of age and should have passed matriculation with English and undergone ground/practical training as approved by the DGCA.

The draft UAS Rules, 2020 further mention that only a 'qualified remote pilot' can operate a UAS in India except for a nano drone, and no person other than a 'licensed remote pilot' shall operate a UAS in India, except those of the nano and micro categories. 

To be a qualified remote pilot, a person should not be less than 18 years of age or more than 65 years of age, should have passed class 10 or its equivalent examination from a recognised board, should possess a sound mind and be medically fit, should be conversant with UAS rules and directions issued by DGCA, and should have completed training from an authorised organisation or institutes as per the requirements specified by the DGCA. To obtain a remote pilot’s licence, a person should meet the requirements of a qualified remote pilot.

16. Violation of the regulations would lead to suspension/cancellation of UIN/UAOP and action according to the relevant sections of the Aircraft Act 1934, or Aircraft Rules, or any statutory provisions, and the Indian Penal Code (IPC).

The draft UAS Rules, 2020 prescribe penalties ranging from imprisonment up to six months or two years, or a fine up to Rs 50,000 or Rs 1 lakh depending on the nature of the offence.

Draft Drone Policy 2.0

The draft Drone Policy 2.0, which envisaged expansion of the application of drones to beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) and beyond the altitude of 400 feet. It talked about exploring the potential of drones to transport temperature-sensitive commodities like body organs, emergency/just-in-time deliveries of life-saving drugs or safe blood for transfusions and collection of patient specimens for delivery for time-sensitive testing in laboratories.

The proposals also dealt with drone corridors and droneports and the operation of autonomous aircraft that use algorithms for flying. Some of the other proposals of the Drone Policy 2.0 are the establishment of unmanned aircraft system traffic management (UTM), a drone directorate, DigitalSky Service Providers, and 100% FDI under automatic route in UAS and RPAS-based commercial civil aviation.

In January, the government had directed all drone operators to voluntarily register their drones on the Digital Sky Platform from January 14-31. During that period, 19,553 non-compliant drones were registered. The number of illegal drones in India is estimated to be 50,000 to 60,000, Ankit Mehta, co-chair of the FICCI committee of drones said in October last year. Then from June 8, the MoCA had started the registration of non-compliant drones which were not registered with the DGCA and lacked DANs.

Insurance for drones

According to the draft UAS Rules, 2020 prohibit the operation of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) without a third party insurance policy to cover the liability that may arise as a result of an accident and death or bodily injury to any person or damage to property.

The compensation payable in case of an accident will be according to that specified in the Motor Vehicles Act.

National counter rogue drone strategy

The ministry of civil aviation (MoCA) had issued national counter rogue drones guidelines that make it necessary for a counter rogue drone system to be able to "tell the difference between those (legal) drones and a single rogue drone that is operating with malicious intent to avoid fratricide."

According to the National Counter Rogue Drone guidelines finalised by the government, anti-rogue drone deployment plan covers three levels based on the sensitivity of vital assets and installations. The full-scale model aims to protect vital assets of critical national importance like Rashtrapati Bhawan, Parliament House, nuclear installations, major airports, etc; the mid-segment model focuses on installations like metro airports, oil refineries, ports, and power plants; and the basic model focuses on state secretariats, important official premises, monuments of national importance and so on.

Counter-UAS measures for the full-scale category include primary and passive detection means like radar, radio frequency (RF) detectors, electro-optical, and infrared cameras and also soft kill and hard kill measures like RF jammers, GPS spoofers, lasers, and drone catching nets. For the other two categories, lower-level threat mitigation techniques have been suggested. The NPNT regulations of the DGCA with a built-in firewall on drones are also important measures to keep rogue drones at bay. 

Source: Unsplash/Karl Greif

According to Alex Cresswell, executive vice president of the French defence conglomerate Thales, using electromagnetic pulse or a very high radio frequency to deal with rogue drones risks putting a large area at standstill. Giving the example of the failed experiment by the United Kingdom's Gatwick Airport, Cresswell pointed out that using military solutions to counter rogue drones in a civilian setting is not a good idea. 

Pizza delivery by drones coming soon?

The MoCA has given approvals to 13 consortia including the ones floated by delivery start-ups Dunzo, Swiggy and Zomato, budget airline SpiceJet, Reliance-backed Asteria Aerospace, drone-maker Throttle Aerospace and the Nandan Nilekani-backed ShopX to test fly drones without the need for UIN and operator permits in the airspace designated by the Airports Authority of India (AAI) till September 30. These consortia have to conduct the tests for 100 hours each and submit the reports containing analytics and flight logs to the DGCA. 

These flights would carry payloads or survey vast areas and were envisaged to be a part of the DGCA's BVLOS drone operations, based on which a policy on BVLOS drones can be framed before the year-end. 

This is the first step towards delivery of restaurant orders, and essential items like life-savings drugs and blood to even areas that are normally difficult to access. Food delivery start-up Zomato informed last year that it had successfully tested its drone-delivery technology. The Covid-19 pandemic and the resultant lockdown had, however, slowed down the progress of the BVLOS experiments. In 2014, Francesco's Pizzeria in Mumbai carried out a drone-based test delivery by sending food to a customer 1.5 km away.

SpiceJet, following DGCA nod for drone trial for its freighter arm SpiceXpress, said that the focus would be on quicker and cost-effective delivery of perishables and medicines (especially emergency medicines), which have a smaller shelf life, other essential supplies and e-commerce products to the remotest corners of the country.      

Rules for drone manufacture and use 

In June, the MoCA issued draft rules for the manufacture and use of drones. According to these rules, a drone importer, manufacturer, trader, owner and operator would need the approval of the DGCA, and manufacturers or importers can sell their devices only to individuals and entities approved by the DGCA. The DGCA has the power to inspect a UAS manufacturing or maintenance facility before granting authorisation and no UAS must carry payload except those allowed by the DGCA. 

Moreover, no UAS can operate without valid third party insurance to cover the liability that may result in the case of an accident or mishap. The draft rules also stated that only nano drones would be permitted to operate in India in general and a "qualified remote pilot" would be necessary to fly heavier drones. 

Source: Youtube/Domino's Pizza UK & ROI

The Economic Times reported in March that the DGCA was planning to liberalise the criteria for training drone pilots and bring airlines, state and central government agencies, universities and drone manufacturers on board. It aimed at broadening the ambit of drone flight trainers beyond 34 flight training organisations (FTOs). 

The aviation regulator had also granted the agriculture ministry's request for operating drones at night and running them on engines, instead of batteries to combat desert locusts in western and central India.        

Guidelines for RPAS 

According to the Bureau of Civil Aviation Security (BCAS) guidelines for drone operating systems or remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) which act like cockpits of a manned aircraft in terms of purpose and design. Hence the BCAS has necessitated that like the cockpit of a manned aircraft, the RPAS must be secured from sabotage or unlawful malicious interference. The guidelines point towards the "potential vulnerability" of RPAS given their "fixed and exposed" nature unlike the "restricted nature" of a cockpit of a commercial plane which is less likely to see intrusions and use of heavier weapons. So the BCAS asks for ensuring access control of RPAS and RPA (remotely piloted aircraft) storage area. 

The guidelines also required the installation of CCTV cameras inside RPAS and storage facilities with the capacity to retain the recording of at least 30 days except in the case of mini/nano and micro drones.   

Other aspects of the BCAS guidelines include storing the drones and preparation of flight in a way to prevent and detect tampering and ensure the integrity of vital components; ensuring data and communication links are free from hacking, spoofing and other forms/interference or malicious hijack; reporting any security incident or accident to the police and BCAS without any "unnecessary delay"; relevant permissions from the local administration and DGCA before operating RPAS; and setting up, implementing and maintaining a security programme according to these guidelines and submitting it to the BCAS. 

The guidelines also call upon drone operators to provide one-day aviation security awareness training is provided online to all its staff. Background checks of remote pilots and support personnel (visual observer, launch crew, recovery crew) are also to be carried out.

(Cover image courtesy Unsplash/Jared Brashier)