The growing popularity of unmanned aerial vehicles warranted that the government of India bring in the Unmanned Aircraft System Rules, 2021 (“UAS Rules”). While these were brought in with huge expectations, they did not quite receive the excitement and traction as expected. Perhaps on account of the onerous compliance burdens and processes that were attached to them. In an effort to ease compliance hurdles and facilitate growth of the Indian drone industry, the Ministry of Civil Aviation notified the more liberalised Drone Rules 2021 (“Drone Rules”) on 25 August 2021. The Drone Rules supersede the erstwhile UAS Rules.
The Drone Rules apply to (a) all persons owning or possessing, or engaged in leasing, operating, transferring or maintaining an unmanned aircraft system (“UAS” or “Drone”) in India; (b) all Drones that are registered in India; and (c) all Drones that are being operated for the time being, in or over India. The Drone Rules do not apply to Drones that belong to, or are used by the naval, military or air forces of the Union of India.
With the Drone Rules now in force, all Drones (other than those with an all-up-weight of more than 500 kilograms) will be governed by the Drone Rules and hence not come within the purview of the Aircraft Rules, 1937.
Let us take a quick look at some basic information and requirements that will make usage of Drones in India possible under the Drone Rules:
- Categorisation: Simply speaking any aircraft that can operate autonomously or can be operated remotely without a pilot on board is called a Drone. It can be (a) an aeroplane; or (b) a rotorcraft; or (c) a hybrid UAS. It can be further sub categorised into a remotely piloted aircraft system; a model remotely piloted aircraft system or an autonomous Drone.
- Classification: Depending on the maximum all-up weight including payload, Drones can be classified as nano, micro, small, medium or large (ranging from 250gms to 150 kgs).
- Type Certification: To operate a Drone in India, a user is required to obtain a type certificate. A type certificate can be procured through the digital sky platform (“DSP”). The DSP is an online platform for regulating permissions and approvals for the registration and operations of Drones. Any person or organisation engaged in manufacturing or importing of Drones, operating Drones for Research, Development and Testing purposes as mentioned in the Drone Rules; or operating a model remotely piloted aircraft system or a nano Drone will not require obtaining a type certificate.
- Safety Features: No Drone is qualified for operation unless the mandated safety features are installed on it prior to use. These include (a) No Permission – No Take off hardware and firmware; (b) real-time tracking beacon that communicates with the Drone’s location, altitude, speed and unique identification number; and (c) geo-fencing capability. With the use of such Drones expected to rise for various purposes and the Drone traffic increase, this to our understanding will be a key monitoring and compliance factor in times to come.
- Registration: With the safety features in place, prior to commencing for use, registration through the DSP is mandatory for all the Drones, unless specifically exempted under the Drone Rules. Once registered, a unique identification number (“UIN”) shall be issued to each such Drones.
All persons owning a Drone manufactured in India or imported in India on or before 30 November 2021 are mandated to register their Drones by 31 December 2021.
Putting it to use
- Zones: In addition to the getting started formalities, a Drone user must also familiarise themselves with the operational information. These begin with getting to know the flying zones, namely 3 zones – green, yellow, and red. One requires prior permission to operate the drones in red and yellow zones. No permission is required for operating in the green zone. The DSP shall facilitate familiarisation of the zones through an interactive space map of all three zones that will help the operator understand the acceptable and prohibited Drone flying zones in real time. This is necessary as a zone may be declared as a temporary red zone for a maximum period of 96 hours by a notification made on the DSP and highlighting it on the airspace map. Irrespective of the zone qualification, under no circumstance can any person operating a Drone violate the right of way of a manned aircraft and shall remain clear of all manned aircrafts.
- Remote Pilot License: A person above the age of 18 and lesser than the age of 65 can apply for and obtain a remote pilot license to pilot a Drone (unless exempted as specified in the Drone Rules). The eligibility criteria for applying is a basic standard 10th certificate and having completed any Drone training program as prescribed by Directorate General of Civil Aviation. A remote pilot license shall be valid for a period of 10 years unless suspended or cancelled. No remote pilot licence will be required for operating a nano Drone and a micro-Drone for non-commercial purposes.
- Insurance: The provisions of the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988 and rules made thereunder will be applicable to the third-party insurance of Drones including for compensation in case of damage to life or property caused by such a Drones. A nano Drone may operate without third party insurance.
- Cost of non-compliance and contravention of Drone Rules: The Drone Rules imposes a penalty with a maximum fine of up to INR 1 lakh on several acts such as flying a Drone without license or flying over prohibited areas. Certain offences such as violation of the requirement of prior permission and carrying of arms and ammunition in a Drone are cognizable and non-compounding in nature. At any time, the Director General can cancel or suspend the license or certification of a Drone as it deems fit.
The Drone Rules are one of a kind and have eased the operation of Drones in India. The DSP is an innovative outlook for regularisation of Drones as it is a business-friendly single window platform for registration, certification, maintaining and updating of zones and providing operational information.
At one end, the liberalised Drone Rules has overcome the challenges posed by the erstwhile Drone Rules pertaining to considerable paperwork, number of authorisations to fly, compliances and increased fees. On the other they make use of Drones possible for reducing manpower and performing tasks which a human cannot perform. What is now possible is express delivery, shipping, surveillance of unreachable military base to name a few. Post the pandemic, the use of Drones is also explored in various sectors including food and beverage, surveillance, agriculture and most importantly the pharmaceutical sector to facilitate specialised activities and improve efficiencies.
Interestingly, the Drone Rules currently provide for free access to information available on DSP to all nodal officers of State Government, Union Territory Administrations, and law enforcement agencies presumably to monitor and manage compliance. This aspect is expected to come under scrutiny in the backdrop of the forthcoming data privacy legislation. It remains to be seen how well we utilise the new Drone opportunity both for business and national interests.