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Indian Drone Policy and Regulations: All You Need to Know

Aug 25, 2021 3:57 AM 6 min read

On June 27th, two drones dropped explosives on an Indian Air Force (IAF) base in Jammu. It was the first-ever confirmed terrorist attack in India where drones were used.

Drones or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) pose a new and unique security threat, as Army Chief General MM Naravane reiterated following the Jammu attack. Their regulation is poorly implemented, their procurement and deployment are relatively easy, and their detection is challenging considering that they are small devices often developed to camouflage with their surroundings.

Last week, a high-level Union Government meeting reportedly concluded with an agreement to tackle the drone challenge with a two-pronged strategy. One, liberalise the existing civilian drone policy. And two, procure and develop counter-drone systems to spot rogue drones.

But before delving into what the regulations have to say, let’s brush up on the burgeoning market that is drone technology.

It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane..It’s a Drone!

For years, drones have commanded a rather Orwellian image as a tool for state surveillance and warfare. However, in recent years their applications have diversified into more...friendly pastures.

Indeed, today drones are more ubiquitous than you may realise. They remind people to follow COVID precautions in Mumbai, deliver medical supplies in Rwanda, film weddings in London or conduct food-delivery in Virginia.


Flying High Since 1999

The meteoric progress in drone technology in the last two decades has arguably been enabled by the military budgets and activities of the US. While drones have been used militarily since the 1990s - during the Gulf War, for example - it was only after 9/11 that the Pentagon seriously expanded its drone programme.

FYI: February 4th 2002 marked the first confirmed usage of an unmanned Predator drone by a government in a targeted killing (the intended victim was Osama bin Laden, but the actual victim was someone else). However, the first attempted drone attack by a terror group can be traced way back to 1994 when a Japanese doomsday cult named Aum Shinrikyo unsuccessfully tried to use a remote-controlled helicopter to spray sarin gas on the Tokyo subway.

The Pentagon’s reliance on drones was a tactical, financial and political decision. Drones were convenient tools to scour the jagged terrains of Afghanistan and Iraq. They were less expensive than proper jets. And they didn't require soldiers on the ground, so they were easier to sell to the White House. In the years that followed, drone applications took off in a big - and controversial - way.


Flying High Over Indian Skies

Coming to India, drones have been in the market for quite long. And until seven years ago, it was largely a free-for-all system without any definite regulations in place.

That changed in 2014. Well, sort of. In October that year, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) imposed a blanket ban on all civilian usage of drones until a clear-cut policy could be notified. However, this didn't change anything on the ground (or should we say "air"?), with the market experiencing a veritable boom as dozens of crores worth of drones 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), which laid down the requirements for operation of civil “Remotely Piloted Aircrafts” (RPAs).

For the first time, RPAs (essentially, drones) were classified into five different categories on the basis of weight as detailed in the table below:

Further, drone owners were required to enlist themselves with the DGCA 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


When You Don't Learn from Your Mistakes

The bureaucratic logjam imposed by the 2018 rules translated into limited real-life compliance. In most places, drone usage permits were secured simply by coming to an agreement with local police. A faulty Digital Sky platform and lofty licensing costs that could run above ₹30,000 ($403) further enabled this jugaad system.

New rules were brought in by the Union Government in March 2021. Inexplicably, they added to the confusing clutter.

Under the updated policy, fresh compliance requirements were mandated for everyone from pilots and operators to manufacturers and importers. Rules were also introduced for toy or nano drones, which were exempt under the 2018 policy. All interested buyers were also required to undergo a pricey week-long training programme and then apply for a long list of permits, the processing of which was not bound by set timelines.

As one analyst put it, "just as simply as Thanos could set off mass extinction with a snap of his fingers, these rules deemed the entire drone industry in India illegal".

Naturally, the lack of a conducive bureaucracy enabled lax compliance. The drone market remains as lawless as the Wild West.

FYI: Be warned, the penalties for non-compliance are quite steep. If you’re caught flying a UAV without a valid license or permit, you may attract penalties of up to ₹50,000 ($671.6). For manufacturers, these fines could extend up to ₹5L ($6,716).


Rogue Drone One

Drone tech has been deployed militarily frequently in recent years. In 2018, two GPS-guided drones exploded during a ceremony attended by Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro - a botched assasination attempt. Last year, drones were deployed in the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The trend is noticeable in India too. On May14th, a suspected Pakistani drone dropped weapons in Jammu. Last year, a UAV was shot down in J&K; its payload was found to include semi-automatic firearms and Chinese grenades. All in all, about 100-150 sightings of suspected drones are reported annually near India’s western border.


What are the Guidelines for Rogue Drones?

In 2019, the Ministry of Civil Aviation identified three types of drones based on threat profile: autonomous drones (can be remotely navigated over large distances), drone swarms (several drones that attack in a coordinated manner), and stealth drones (designed to evade detection).

The MCA also noted that the existing air defence systems are "generally ineffective against drones". Military radars are designed to identify large and fast-moving objects like planes. Further, even if an enemy drone was identified, using anti-aircraft systems against these UAVs would be a very expensive response.

The policy listed primary and "passive" detection systems such as radar, radio frequency detectors and infrared cameras. When it comes to destroying the rogue drones, both "soft kill" and "hard kill" systems were recommended, from radio frequency jammers to laser weapons and drone-catching nets.


What’s India’s Drone Defence System Like?

It’s still up-and-coming. The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has developed a detect-and-destroy technology for drones, but it’s yet to enter mass production. This system can reportedly detect and jam drones up to 3km and uses a laser weapon to fire at targets that are 1 to 2.5km away.

FYI: The DRDO’s counter-drone system was deployed during the last two Republic Day parades for VVIP protection, during the Prime Minister’s Independence Day speech last year, and during former US President Donald Trump’s 2020 Ahmedabad visit.

Moreover, the Armed Forces have been adding drones to their capacity too. The Navy has leased two unarmed SeaGuardian Predator drones from the US. During this year's Army Day parade, 75 drones were showcased moving together to destroy simulated targets.

The next phase of drone tech development in India will depend on the Government's new rules, which are expected to be unveiled next month on Independence Day. If the rumours are true, there’s good news in store for civil drone enthusiasts - less regulation, inexpensive licensing requirements, and permission for sectors like food-delivery to use drones in their operations. This could encourage more compliance on the ground.

Meanwhile, the IAF is looking to buy 10 Counter Unmanned Aircraft Systems aka anti-drone systems. The DRDO’s system is expected to be deployed later this year. Altogether, these developments bode well for the future of a sector that is going to be integral for aviation, security and logistics, among other sectors.


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