In a first, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) has certified drones developed by two Bengaluru startups, Skylark Drones and Throttle Aerospace Systems, reports the Economic Times. These drones complied with the NP-NT (no permission, no takeoff) protocol of the Digital Sky policy, which came into effect on December 1, 2018. Under the NP-NT protocol, operators need to request prior permission to fly their drones via a mobile app; drones that lack permission from the Digital Sky Platform will not be able to operate. The startups got the certifications for their drones under the visual line of sight (VLOS) category – in which the drones have to be within viewing distance of the operator. Four other firms that applied for certification have not received it so far.

Regulations under the current Digital Sky policy

The Union government had announced drone regulations in August 2018 ans said they would come into effect in December, when the Digital Sky Platform for registration of drones was launched. The rules created a registrations and licensing regime for flying drones and providing more legal certainty to drone operators. The key rules in Digital Sky concerning drones are:

  • All drones (other than nano drones) are required to have a unique identification number (UIN). The fee for a fresh UIN is Rs 1000.
  • All drone operators (except for nano and micro drones) are required to obtain an Unmanned Aircraft Operator Permit (UAOP). The fee for a fresh UAOP is Rs 25,000 and is valid for 5 years.
  • No permission, no take off (NPNT) – Before any flight, a NPNT clearance needs to be obtained
  • All drones need to have Insurance and an ID plate, with the UIN engraved on a fire-resistant plate
  • Nano drones don’t have to be registered or obtain NPNT compliances. They can be operated up to 50 feet or in enclosed spaces.
  • Micro drones cannot be flown above 200 feet; all other drones can be flown up to 400 feet
  • Drones can be operated only during the day, and within line of sight
  • Air space has been partitioned into Red Zone (flying not permitted), Yellow Zone (controlled airspace), and Green Zone (automatic permission).
  • Drones fall under the restricted items category and can’t be carried in hand baggage in aircraft

After formally announcing these regulations, then Minister for Civil Aviation Suresh Prabhu had tweeted that drones could be registered online, on the Digital Sky portal.

Drone policy 2.0 soon?

In January this year, the government had suggested establishing a corridor for flying drones and setting up a regime for licensing and authorising drones. Then Minister of State for Civil Aviation Jayant Sinha had announced an updated policy for drone operations at the Global Aviation Summit in Mumbai. Here are major proposals in the new policy that Sinha announced:

  • Drone corridors: Creating space in the sky with dynamic red, yellow and green zones. “A 5-km radius around airports and areas around Rashtrapati Bhavan will be red zone…There will be plenty of green zones, and some yellow zones,” said the minister.
  • Drone service providers for registering, licensing and regulation for flying drones
  • Drone ports: To enable drone corridors for different types of drones, and to operate drones beyond the visual line of sight, with payloads, and to enable automation of flight. “Each operational drone has to be registered” said the minister. This was already required in the first phase of drone regulations, “they will become more stringent in Drone Regulations 2.0 as we cross these thresholds of beyond visual line-of-sight, payloads, and automation”
  • Automatic air traffic management: To enable bi-modal control which will ensure that both the DSPs and air traffic management have control of the drone
  • Drone Directorate: setting up a Drone directorate under the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DCGA) to issue guidelines for drone operations. The directorate may prescribe “a maximum lifecycle for each drone-type and operators must apply for re-certification at the end of the lifecycle.”
  • 100% FDI under automatic route for UAS (Unmanned Aerial System) and RPAS (Remotely Piloted Aircraft System)
  • The new regulations includes features for “protecting personal data by design

Read: Union govt proposes drone corridors, service providers in Drone Regulations 2.0

Early adopters of drones: Zomato, Amazon, Indian Railways

  • Earlier this month, Zomato said in a press statement that it had successfully tested its drone delivery technology. A hybrid drone was used for the experiment which was able to cover 5 km in about 10 minutes while carrying a payload of 5 kg. Its  peak speed was 80 kmph. Last December the firm had acquired a Lucknow-based startup, TechEagle, to work on delivery through hybrid multi-rotor drones.
  • In January 2018, the Indian Railways had said in a press statement that it would deploy drone-mounted cameras to monitor activities such as rescue operations, track inspection, traffic regulation and infrastructure projects. It said it would start with the West Central Railways (WCR) headquarters in Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh, which is the first division to procure drone-mounted cameras.
  • And in October 2017, Amazon filed a patent application in India for multi-scale fiducials, which would allow Amazon’s delivery drones to identify objects from varying distances to both avoid collisions and navigate better.