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Drone Regulation in India: Drone Rules 2021, Explained

Editor, TRANSFIN.
Sep 26, 2021 1:38 PM 4 min read
Editorial

Days after two drones dropped explosives on an Indian Air Force (IAF) base in Jammu (the first-ever confirmed terrorist attack in India where drones were used), a high-level Union Government meeting concluded with an agreement to amend the existing policy for the civilian usage of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS).

Last month, the new Drone Rules 2021 (full pdf document here) were notified. These replace the UAS Rules, which have been in place since March.

Background

Until seven years ago, drones in India operated in a proverbial Wild West-like regulatory space in that they were not bound by any set regulations.

That changed in 2014 when GoI suddenly imposed a blanket ban on all civilian usage of drones until a clear-cut policy could be notified. This didn't particularly ground all Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), given that dozens of crores worth of these devices continued to be purchased by Indians each year despite them being technically illegal.

Finally, in December 2018, the National Drone Policy came into effect aka the Civil Aviation Requirements (CAR). For the first time, the requirements for operation of civil “Remotely Piloted Aircrafts” (RPAs) aka drones were laid down and they were classified into five different categories on the basis of weight. Further, drone owners were required to register themselves with the Government and procure a unique Ownership Acknowledgement Number and Drone Acknowledgement Number on a digital platform (Digital Sky). A string of other directives were also enacted, including on geo-fencing, licensing, logging flight plans to secure clearance etc.

The CAR enabled a severe bureaucratic logjam, which translated into limited real-life compliance. To address the loopholes, the new UAS Rules were brought in by the Union Government in March 2021. Inexplicably, they added to the confusing clutter by introducing new compliance requirements!

 

Turning Over a New Leaf

Faced with relentless lobbying from industry players and confronted with a new security landscape following the Jammu terrorist attack, GoI moved quickly to make amends and undo the UAS fiasco by abandoning red-tapism and embracing liberalisation.

The new drone rules mark a significant shift in regulators’ stance on UAVs. The Government now admits that RPAs “can be significant creators of employment and economic growth due to their reach, versatility, and ease of use, especially in India’s remote and inaccessible areas” and envisions India as a possible global drone hub by 2030.

 

Key Features of the Drone Rules 2021

According to officials, the new regulations are built on “a premise of trust, self-certification and non-intrusive monitoring”. 

  1. The total number of forms required to be filled has been reduced to five from 25 while the number of fee payments mandated before an individual is allowed to operate drones has fallen to four from the earlier 72.
  2. Many approval processes are no longer required. These include unique authorisation number, unique prototype identification number, certificate of manufacturing and airworthiness, certificate of conformance, certificate of maintenance etc.
  3. The cost of a remote pilot license has been reduced to ₹100 for all categories of drones, regardless of size, and will be valid for 10 years.
  4. The infamous faulty Digital Sky platform will receive a user-friendly makeover.
  5. The airspace will be divided into green, yellow and red zones (to be displayed on Digital Sky within the next 30 days). No permission required for operating RPAs in green zones. In yellow zones, drone operations are restricted and shall require official permission. Drone activity in red zones to be permitted only under exceptional circumstances.
  6. No requirement for micro drones (for non-commercial use) and nano drones, as was earlier the case with the CAR.
  7. No requirement for security clearance before issuance of any registration or licence.
  8. No restriction on foreign ownership in Indian drone companies. 
  9. Remote pilot licence to be issued within 15 days of pilot receiving the remote pilot certificate from the authorised drone school through the Digital Sky platform.
  10. RPAs’ unique identification number may be sought online through the self-certification route.
  11. Maximum penalty for violations reduced to ₹1L. 
  12. Coverage of drones under this updated policy increased from 300 kg to 500 kg. To cover drone taxis too.
  13. Drone corridors will be developed for cargo deliveries.
  14. Safety and security features like “No permission – no takeoff” (NPNT), real-time tracking beacon, geo-fencing etc. to be notified in future. Industry will also be given a six-month window for compliance.
  15. Drone Promotion Council to be set up to facilitate a “growth-oriented regulatory regime”.

 

Taxi in the Sky

From an industry perspective, the points about recognising increased payloads (#12), the nod to drone taxis, and the update about drone corridors (#13) are particularly significant.

Arguing that an ecosystem should be established to create a “revolution”, Civil Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia has said, “Air taxis are being researched and invented globally and many startups are coming up. The time is not far when like taxis that you see on roads, like Uber, etc., you will see taxis in the air…”

Conditional permission to use drones for numerous purposes has already been granted to 10 organisations, including SAIL, Mahindra and Mahindra and Bayer Crop Science. Besides, there are already over 200 startups in the country’s drone industry. And RPAs have already been used for a variety of purposes - for example, to remind people to follow COVID-19 precautions in Mumbai. To say nothing of the many companies like Zomato, Swiggy, Dunzo etc. (aka the “Clearsky Flight Consortium”) that are testing drone deliveries and have been given permission for Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) tests i.e. Long-duration flights where the drones fly “beyond” the pilot’s visual line of sight. Currently, India only permits VLOS civilian drone usage.

All said and done, the trajectory of RPA regulation in India - from lawlessness to the flawed CAR to the needlessly draconian UAS 2021 to the liberalised Drone Rules 2021 - is a promising one. With individual, commercial and military drone usage on the rise across the world, and the global drone industry projected to double in size to $42.8bn in 2025, India's embrace of deregulation and decentralisation of its drone sector is a welcome step that is likely to encourage innovation.

FIN.
 

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