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What drone policy questions need to be asked about classification, airspace and security

The directorate general of civil aviation (DGCA) is currently framing guidelines  for the operation of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones in India. While ecommerce players like Amazon have been pushing hard for the use of drones as a means of last mile delivery in the United States and recently the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) also issued guidelines for the civilian use of drones. One of the contentious parts of the guidelines was that a line of sight must always be kept between the operator and the drone.

R. Swaminathan, a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation and contributing editor of Governance Now, in a research paper (pdf) explores the policy and regulatory challenges for unmanned aerial vehicles in India. According to the paper, India has the second largest number of of acknowledged drones in the world after the United States of America in military use. However, framing guidelines for civilian usage is another ball game altogether. “Drones pose unique policy challenges that transcend conventional domains of national security, safety, consumer technology, aviation, privacy and business practices,” Sawminathan writes in his paper.

In the first part of this series we talk about classification of drones, airspace they operate in, and the safety questions which need to be addressed.

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MediaNama went through the policy paper and here’s what we found interesting for framing a policy around drones and which we think should emerge as talking points while the DGCA is framing its guidelines:


The first point in framing guidelines would be to classify the types of drones which are being used. One of the classifications which can emerge is based on the functionality of drones and which could fall under six broad categories:

Note these classifications also include drones which are used in military operations.

1. Target and Decoy: Examples include the Northrop BQM-74 Chukar; India’s Lakshya, which is officially designated as a Pilotless Target aircraft; Abadeel III of Pakistan; and the Russian Lavochkin La-17, which incidentally was Soviet Union’s first UAV in 1953.

2. Reconnaissance: Examples include AAI RQ-7, Northrop Grumman RQ-180, India’s DRDO Nishant and Israel’s IAI

3. Combat: Examples include Israel’s Harop, Eitan and AP-10PCAS; India’s DRDO Rustom-II; British Taranis; Dassault Aviation’s nEUROn, being developed by a consortium of European nations; Russia’s Skat; and, the most well known, the American MQ-9 Reaper and RQ-1 Predator.

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4. Logistics: Domino’s Pizza’s specialised drones manufactured in China called DomiCopters, and Amazon’s octocopters and quadracopters.

5. Research and Development: Examples include Brazil’s Acauã VANT, Dassault’s AVE-D Petit Duc and AVE-C Moyen Duc.

6. Civil and Commercial UAVs: Examples include Aeronautics AISR for oil and natural gas exploration, Aerostar for media operations, Iris+ for personal use, AirDog for sports, Orbiter UAV for law and order missions and Dominator UAV for multiple civil and commercial operations.

The PacAberporth Unmanned Systems Forum classification favours a system based on range and altitude and focuses more on the operational capabilities of drones.

1. Hand-held: 2,000 feet (600 metres) altitude, about 2 km range. Examples include Puma Dorin, Black Hornet and Raven.

2. Close Range: 5,000 feet (1,500 metres) altitude, up to 10 km range. Examples include MQ-8B Fire Scout, Russia’s Zala 421-08
and Israel’s Tadiran Mastiff.

3. NATO Type: 10,000 feet (3,000 metres) altitude, up to 50 km range. Examples include IAI Heron and NEANY Arrow.

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4. Tactical: 18,000 feet (5,500 metres) altitude, about 160 km range. Examples include Schiebel Camcopter S-100 and Orbiter.

5. MALE: Medium Altitude, Long Endurance. Up to 30,000 feet (9,000 metres), range over 200 km. Examples include Dominator,
MQ-1 Predator and Chengdu Pterodactyl I.

6. HALE: High Altitude, Long Endurance. Over 30,000 feet (9,100 metres), indefinite range. Examples include the solar powered
Zephyr, RQ-4A Global Hawk and AeroVironmen Pathfinder and

7. Hypersonic: High-speed, supersonic (Mach 1–5) or hypersonic (Mach 5+) 50,000 feet (15,200 metres) or suborbital altitude, range
over 200 km. Examples include the experimental Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Falcon and the SR-72.

8. Orbital: Low earth orbit (Mach 25+). Examples include the experimental Boeing X-37 OTV (Orbital Transport Vehicle).

It should be noted that the classifications only partially cover the emergence of micro-drones which are making serious inroads in civilian and commercial uses. These drones, though no bigger than a fist, can fly up to altitudes of 1,000 feet and have an operational range of about five kilometres. Due to the lax regulation about them, micro-drones from China could be sold as toys over the counter by retailers. Swaminnathan points out that one of the issues with these drones is that radio bands used by them often clash with police frequencies and interfere with other bands dedicated to mobile and aviation communications.

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Airspace and safety

It’s important to understand that airspace is now mostly come to mean anything above 10,000 feet. Except for landing and take-off, for airlines, air traffic controllers, aviation authorities and policymakers, ‘airspace’ refers only to 25,000 to 35,000 feet which is the standard cruising altitude for most civilian aircrafts. Microdrones and small UAVs redefine airspace due to the nature of their operations as some octocopters and quadracopters, as mentioned earlier, cruise at less than 100 feet while other go up to 3,000 feet.

In light of this there are some questions that need to be asked and redefine airspace to ensure safety:

  • How and who will coordinate unmanned and manned flights in a mixed airspace? The US FAA regulations say that currently octocopters can only operate in day time and require a line of sight between the operator and the UAV. But however, drones as a technology allow curious mix of robotics, artificial intelligence and machine-to-machine networking. In certain scenarios, it may not be always be economically feasible for a human operator to keep track of the many drones in the skies. Current ground-based radar systems may not be equipped to track UAVs. The whole new radar and tracking system must be introduced gradually.
  • Will each drone be issued a unique identification number or code? The current aircraft numbering system is inadequate to accommodate the vast variety. Since drones are increasingly becoming part of a networked environment, it is critical to give each drone a unique
    electronic code, akin to an Internet protocol address, for quick, easy and clear identification. There must also be a clear demarcation between UAVs used for civilian and military purposes and separate protocols must be established for the same.
  • How will drones be legally regulated? For instance, would a separate act, like the Motor Vehicles Act, be required? The current US FAA regulations mandate that UAV operators must pass a a recurrent aeronautical knowledge test every 24 month and obtain an unmanned aircraft operator certificate with a small UAS rating
  • What happens if two drones collide and someone is hurt or killed? There is obviously a need to reorient the current insurance regulatory framework.
  • What about cybersecurity of the drone airspace? The reach and maneuverability of drones equipped with cameras can provide real-time video feeds on the ground and further they can also be fitted with devices which can intercept and transmit communications which can grossly violate privacy. Cyber security questions for both military and civilian uses must be answered.

Image source: Flickr user Andrew

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