Assessing the Challenges Surrounding Unmanned Aviation: Are Drones Ready for Take-off in India?

By: Pragalbh Bhardwaj

Unmanned aviation takes place with the help of new-age technological devices, popularly known as drones. Drones are unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), controlled either autonomously by on-board processors or by the remote control of a pilot operating from the ground.

Around the world, the drones or UAVs are becoming more and more ubiquitous with each passing day. They are becoming smaller, cheaper and are being equipped with better technology thereby making them accessible and useful even to the general public. Drones are useful for a variety of purposes – from counterterrorism operations in war zones to recreational activities like taking photographs at social gatherings.

However, in India, the use of drones is reserved for government and military purposes only. Drones are used by the defence, including paramilitary and police forces in Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Mumbai and Kolkata, largely for the purposes of security and surveillance.

In May 2014, a drone was used to deliver a pizza in Mumbai.[1] The news of the delivery soon spread through the internet and the Mumbai police woke up to the dangers of its possible misuse by terrorist organisations. The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), vide a public notice issued in October 2014, banned the launch of drones or UAVs in the Indian civil airspace.[2] Citing safety and security concerns behind the imposition of the ban, the DGCA in the notice pointed out that it was in the process of formulating regulations for certification and operation of drones in the Indian civil airspace, and until proper regulations were brought in place, the launch or operation of drones without due permission from the concerned authorities would not be permissible.

However, despite the ban, drones are still found hovering in India.[3] Drones are available in the market at very affordable prices and none of them carries any warning stating their use or operation in India as illegal. This underscores the need for introducing the DGCA regulations to enable the proper use of drones and address the rapid technological advancements.

It has to be realised that drones are a thing of the future and their extensive application in civilian and commercial sectors cannot be overemphasised. They are found to be useful for a range of security purposes and for saving lives in war zones. But their application is definitely not limited to just that. Drones are useful in weather forecasting, disaster management, and for transportation of medicines and emergency supplies to different places with immense infrastructural insufficiency.[4] Therefore, putting a blanket ban over something that could be of such assistance in dire situations is certainly not justified.

India has to take its stand and figure out its policy and regulatory framework for dealing with drones. This framework has to be far-sighted so as to ensure operational clarity. It also has to provide for setting up of the indigenous drone manufacturing industry. Drones are a promising new technological sector, not only for their manifold usages but also in areas of commercial development and manufacturing, as big companies like Google, Amazon and others, are hugely investing in this sector.[5] Drones being a thing of the future have the potential of attaining significance in India’s digital economy.

The experts of the drone technology are of the view that the market for drones in India will be touching $10 million in the coming years. The experts also note that once the ban is removed, the market will witness an exponential growth. Research reports maintain that the drone market in the year 2014 was $609 million. Considering the growth in the market, it is expected to reach $4.8 billion dollars worldwide by 2021.[6] For India to obtain the economic benefits of UAVs, an effective legal framework must be formed. It has been noticed in the past that failure or delays in keeping up with new, emerging technologies only prove to be detrimental to the Indian economy. Hence, if the DGCA does not come up with its regulations soon, it would cost millions to the Indian business.

A persistent concern worldwide with regard to drone technology is that of privacy violations. Therefore, it is for the law-making authorities to ensure that the laws contain provisions for sufficient privacy protection. However, the mechanism should not be over-regulated as it might cause the sector to asphyxiate.

Another serious challenge for the aviation of unmanned drones is the concern of public safety. A small drone weighing 15-20 kg, upon losing control in the sky over our heads could cause serious injuries. As drones are bought by the general public for recreational purposes, expecting the recreational users to be trained in piloting the drones would be excessively wishful. To deal with this situation, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) of the United Kingdom has issued guidance to manufacturers so as to ensure that the safety message reaches the buyers. It is imperative for India to set down operational guidelines for drones and cautiously regulate commercial drone operations.

How the drone saga will progress and develop in India is yet to be seen. However, India must act promptly in bringing these regulations in order to make the most of this new technology. One can only hope that the new regulations by the DGCA address the safety and privacy issues in detail and are also sufficiently advanced in nature so as to not asphyxiate the UAV innovation.

[1] –– ‘Been there, Drone that: Pizza air-delivery in Mumbai’ The Times of India accessed 12 July 2015.

[2] Directorate General of Civil Aviation: Public Notice accessed 13 July 2015.

[3] Rajput R, ‘Drones fly in Mumbai despite DGCA ban’ The Hindu accessed 10 July 2015.

[4] Swaminathan R, ‘Drones and India: Exploring Policy and Regulatory Challenges Posed by Civilian Unmanned Aerial Vehicles’ (February, 2015) Observer Research Foundation Occasional Paper 58.

[5] Murali M, ‘Unmanned aerial vehicles: A look at upcoming players’ The Economic Times accessed 14 July 2015.

[6] –– ‘DGCA should develop drone norms’ The Asian Age accessed 10 July 2015.

(Pragalbh Bhardwaj is a student at National Law University, Odisha.)