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India and the United States: The Time Has Come to Collaborate on Commercial Drones

By Sylvia Mishra

On December 1, 2018, flying commercial drones became legal in India as the Directorate General of Civil Aviation’s (DGCA) put forward guidelines on how unmanned aircraft can operate within the country. The opening up of the drone, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), market is expected to improve efficiency and create jobs in certain sectors like agriculture, forestry, media, construction, and disaster management while also expanding the culture of innovation. Commercial drones are among the fastest growing segments in India and their demand is growing exponentially. In some of the public sectors, such as infrastructure, transport, agriculture, and disaster management, drones are already being utilized for land surveillance, improvements to infrastructure, precision agriculture, 3-D digital mapping, and tracking a variety of issues of river erosion and deforestation. At the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos in 2019, the Indian state government of Andhra Pradesh announced that it will start testing a policy framework—Advanced Drone Operations Toolkit developed in partnership with 41 government agencies and private enterprises to enable state-wide drone delivery operations aimed at bringing key medical supplies to communities across the state. The open source guide was developed in collaboration with the governments of Rwanda andSwitzerland, and leverages the work of the Drone Innovator’s Network (DIN) to roll out socially impactful, advanced drone operations.

As the utility of drones in the commercial sector grows, several market reports indicate that the Indian commercial drone market will reach $885.7 million by 2021.

The adoption of commercial drone applications is on the rise across sectors. As the utility of drones in the commercial sector grows, several market reports indicate that the Indian commercial drone market will reach $885.7 million by 2021. India has been one of the top drone-importing nations, accounting for 22.5 percent of the world’s UAV imports. Israel and the United States have emerged as top drone exporters to India as the focus has been on expanding its armed drone inventory. In 2018, the Indian government approved the purchase of Heron TP missile-armed drones from Israel. The United States will export the General Atomics MQ-9 Guardian/Predator-B long-range unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) to India, making it one of the most significant defense sales between the United States and India. The sale of drones with military applications has become an important part of bilateral defense ties between India and the United States, and both countries operate under the Defense Technology and Trade Initiative. Breaking away from the dominant narrative that focuses on India-U.S. collaboration on drones for military purposes, this paper aims to underscore that India and the United States have a unique opportunity to partner on commercial drones. Over the coming years, drones will become an integral element to a better standard of living. India and the United States. should partner to harness the benefits of commercial drones by leveraging the technological prowess and culture of innovation that exist in both countries.

The paper aims to develop a framework where India and the United States can cooperate to promote greater use of drone technology in the commercial sector to transform working practices, bring significant economic benefits, and boost prosperity. This paper benefited from interviews conducted with several experts in Washington, D.C. and New Delhi, and takes the position that a partnership on commercial drones is essential. It outlines how India and the United States can collaborate on a multilateral level, a bilateral government-to-government level, and an industry-to-industry level. As and how the global airspace becomes congested and increasingly contested, the development of counter-drone technologies is also inevitable. The paper also discusses counter-drone technologies, their evolution and use in the U.S. market, and use by law enforcement agencies. It outlines how India can learn how some of the counter-drone technologies are being utilized by law enforcement agencies in the United States.

Why Does India-U.S. Cooperation on Commercial Drones Matter?

As India and the United States continue to bolster their bilateral partnership, one facet of their relationship that remains understudied, and mandates greater attention, is commercial drones and their use for public benefit. As the oldest and largest democracies, the United States and India also need to focus on using drone technologies to drive positive social change, proactively shape demand for commercial drone technology and its applications across various sectors and domestic growth opportunities. India and the United States have a rich pool of resources and talent, the spirit of innovation to build an ecosystem that depends more heavily on the civic use of drone tech. Drone technology is rapidly advancing. Even though the commercial drone sector in India is still evolving and regulations are being formed, this industry has the potential to transform societies. Not to mention that as commercial drones proliferate, the surrounding industry would also grow; jobs in analytics and data processing are just an example. A McKinsey report indicated that the value of the commercial drone industry and activity has risen from $40 million in 2012 to about $1 billion in 2017. It is expected that by 2026, commercial drones—both corporate and consumer applications—will have an annual impact of $31 billion to $46 billion on the country’s GDP. Despite the drone market in India being in a nascent stage, the paper offers an overview of how India and the United States can cooperate to incentivize the use of drones for a variety of purposes. Several industries in India will be greatly enhanced, and will enable smarter employment of people with the use of drones as force multipliers in the agriculture, construction, energy and logistic sectors. In much the same way that the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Part 107 rules have facilitated the spread of commercial drone operations in the U.S., the Directorate of Civil Aviation (DGCA) in India needs to undertake incremental steps to relieve the indigenous commercial drone industries from the scourge of regulations that curtails the sector to flourish. It is important that the DGCA undertakes policies that ensure both safety and security of drones, but also gradually encourages operations beyond the current limit of 400 feet of Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS).

Three Levels of Cooperation on Commercial Drones

The two countries can cooperate on three levels: multilateral, bilateral, and industry-to-industry.

1) Multilateral Cooperation for Responsible Drone Use: There are wide variations in drone laws amongst countries. In fact, even within the United States, drone laws vary from state to state and work on a sort of drone federalism. In 2018, the International Standard Organization (ISO) proposed international standards for drone operations with the expectation that these standards will be adopted by countries globally. The objective of the ISO’s international standards is to establish drone regulation that every country can agree on, and will help normalize drone operations and responsible use throughout the world. The ISO standards focus primarily on data security, air safety, privacy, and facilitating ways where UAVs can be used in a variety of commercial scenarios.

It is imperative that both India and the United States at a multilateral level push for the spread of safe and responsible practices of common drone laws. While several countries are trying to grapple with this challenge, it is important for the architects of India’s drone ecosystem to keep in mind that adopting the ISO standards needs to be swift and smooth. If the United States and India are able to both converge to the ISO standards and also encourage other countries to join, it will allow for great cross-pollination among businesses across countries. For example, U.S. companies that have already matured in commercial drone technologies would not have to bear a huge cost to restructure their operations in India for compliance. Moreover, the manufacturing of drones and the import and export of hardware and software can become globalized. This means that drone hardware can be manufactured in one country, software developed in another country, and the final product can be used in another country. In a globalized and an integrated economic environment, India and the United States adopting ISO standards would make cooperation between them and with other countries easier.

2) Partnership at the Government Level for a Cause: Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR): In the past decade, India has been a first responder in several humanitarian disasters and international crises. It demonstrates India’s commitment as a responsible actor in the global order and willingness to become a net security provider in the region. New Delhi has contributed its resources to prevent and mitigate regional and international crises. India’s leadership role and India-U.S. efforts following the devastating earthquake in Nepal have been noteworthy. Drones have been at the forefront of India’s increased efforts in HADR. Humanitarian organizations and several governments across the world have mobilized drones to collect vital information about collapsed buildings, locate survivors, and supply victims with relief packages. The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) helped in Nepal’s relief efforts using the Netra drone for aid. Similarly, the NDMA has been using the resources of several indigenous drone manufacturing companies in India. For example, Airpix, a company that specializes in aerial photography and video production, was used in a campaign to rebuild Uttarakhand and to spread awareness about infrastructural deficiencies in the mountainous state. India has also been sending medicine to remote areas in Rwanda, Malawi, Uganda and other places with the delivery of medical services using drones.

While India and the U.S. government have their own mechanisms in dealing with HADR, cooperation on HADR is featured in the New Framework for the U.S.-India Defense Relationship (2005) and was reiterated in the 2015 framework. As India and the United States develop frameworks and models of cooperation and burden-sharing in the Indo-Pacific, collaboration on HADR using drones is a good starting point. Both countries can benefit from the complementary nature of their efforts and interests in the region.

There are already a few examples of India-U.S. cooperation on drones with a focus on HADR. Under the Defense Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI), India and the United States are working on an air-launched unmanned system which would have HADR as one of the targeted uses. Another example of cooperation between the two countries on drones is that in the wake of a polio outbreak, a U.S.-based company, WeRobotics, was asked by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to organize training on medical cargo drones in Papua New Guinea (PNG). WeRobotics partnered with two Indian companies,Soli Consultancy and Redwing Labs India, to ensure the project’s completion and success.

3) Industry-to-Industry Cooperation to Boost India’s Commercial Drones Market: China has emerged as the leading civilian drone exporter. India has not been able to become an exporter of commercial drones, and there are several challenges that have stymied the commercial drone ecosystem in India. One factor is the lack of clarity on the drone manufacturing licensing process from the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion (DIPP). Another challenge is import restrictions on the components (motors, propellers, batteries) for assembling a drone. The export of drones also goes through an inter-ministerial panel due to restrictions under the SCOMET list.

Under the Civil Aviation Regulations, the DGCA has launched the Digital Sky platform, which is built around the principle of “No Permission, No Takeoff.” While Digital Sky will be in charge of handling flights permissions, to give an impetus to the commercial drone industry, some of the issues such as “Beyond Visual Line of Sight” (BVLOS) and Autonomous Operations need to be resolved.

Set against some of these challenges and uncertainties are the regulatory framework in India, which are still evolving, and a sweeping cross-pollination between Indian and U.S. industries may not be possible. However, the Indian drone industry will find it beneficial to partner with U.S. drone industries on building the software. There are few examples of such cooperation. For instance, Precision Hawk is a U.S. company working in partnership with the FAA and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on Low Altitude Tracking and Avoidance Systems (LATAS). The LATAS platform will show pilots of manned aircraft where UAVs are in the airspace before they become a safety hazard. For this project, Precision Hawk is collaborating with a technology partner in India called Webonise on the simulation of drones in a virtual environment to aid the development of this platform.


To foster India-U.S. partnership at the three proposed levels, there are several challenges that the Indian commercial drones’ ecosystem will need to overcome at the policy and regulatory level.

As drones are gradually incorporated into the Indian airspace, there are several long-standing liability issues and privacy laws that the DGCA will need to clarify. Remotely controlled drones are increasingly cheap, and more widely available, but they pose real privacy risks. Some of the examples include surveillance drones violating property rights, and pervasive surveillance. A research survey, reported by Forbes in early 2019, indicated that flying drones 24/7 generated fears of the police. The way commercial drone technology is progressing, it seems quite likely that corporate giants like Amazon, Google, UPS, and Alibaba will be stepping up efforts to enable drones to play a significant role in the “last-mile” delivery – transporting items from the warehouse to the customer’s doorstep (A doorstep delivery would entail collection of customer data at levels which would be considered private such as residence address, timings for deliveries among other detailed information on customers.).

Policymakers will be required to ensure a balance between the benefits of commercial drone use and its privacy costs. Any framework that provides impetus to a new technology is required to ensure that that spirit of innovation is sustained, while individual rights to privacy and freedom of expression are also maintained. For instance, a Rand report indicates that a team of researchers explored the hidden or indirect costs and potential consequences, both positive and negative, of adopting commercial delivery drones. The study revealed that regulators around the world are struggling to keep pace with new drone delivery technology and some countries are banning the use of commercial drones as regulating a technology which is still evolving is a challenge. Moreover, as there are security implications of this technology, regulators are erring on the side of cautious by banning the delivery applications of commercial drones.

While some of the current regulations in place cover licensure for pilots, registration, restricted fly zones, and insurance, one of the primary challenges of using delivery drones is a requirement that drones stay within the pilot’s line of sight (which almost defeats the purpose of commercial delivery drones). India’s Ministry of Civil Aviation’s framework for Civil Aviation Regulations (2.0) still does not provide specifics for several issues such as current imports and permission structures, or drone licensing and registrations, among other things. The authorities will also need to devise a regulatory response and guidance for mid-air collisions and injury to property and persons.

To increase bilateral partnership on commercial drones, India will first need to fine-tune some of its regulatory policies and also look at international standardization of commercial drone laws. One positive development that will spur interest and investments in the Indian drone ecosystem is that the government has allowed for 100% foreign direct investments in manufacturing commercial drones.

While the Indian government and industry leaders will grapple these regulatory challenges for the commercial drone ecosystem, it is important to remember that drone technology will only advance worldwide. The number of people and industries that sees value in utilizing drones as force multipliers increase. Therefore, India cannot afford to stay behind the curve or stymie talent and technology in this industry.

Counter Drone Technology and Operations

Research indicates that most drone operators fly in good faith; however, there are some actors that can do a lot of damage using commercial drones. There are an increasing number of reports that state that extremist groups, militias, and drug cartels are using commercial drones as weapons. The proliferation of drones and the possibility of their use for malignant purposes, such as use of drones by organized criminals to run counter operations against law enforcement, plan robberies and other crimes, have led to the development of counter-drone technologies. Industries are investing in developing counter-drone technologies for law enforcement agencies to prevent unwarranted use of commercial drones and to ensure the safety and security of civilians. Counter-drone technology, also commonly known as counter-UAS (C-UAS) or counter-UAV, refers to systems that are used to detect and intercept unmanned aircraft. Drones are dual-use and can pose threats in both civilian and wartime environments. Concerns regarding the weaponization and use of commercial drones in conflicts, most notably by non-state actors, are growing. Drones have been used in conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Ukraine. For instance, the Islamic State (ISIS) was able to import and construct several hundreds of inexpensive drones and use them in battlefields in Iraq and Syria. According to a report from the Center for a New American Security, more than 90 countries and non-state actors operate drones and their increasing use will have an impact on the future of conflict, crisis stability, and escalation dynamics. Non-state actors are increasingly able to transform commercial/hobby drones into military hardware and in the future, this trend will only grow as it provides non-state actors access to the kind of operational awareness that was previously held only by state militaries.

It is in the context of these developments and security concerns that commercial industries are rapidly investing in counter-drone technologies to keep people safe from rogue drones. A report calledCounter-Drones System by the Center for the Study of Drone at Bard College found out that there are at least 235 counter-drone products either available on the market or are in various stages of development. Several detection, identification, and neutralization technologies are being employed and developed by leading defense contractors. Some of the most prominent counter-drone technologies for detection and tracking include scanning for radio frequency, electro-optical, infrared, acoustic, and combined sensors. Other technologies and methods used for interdiction of drones involve radio frequency jamming, spoofing, laser, nets, and projectiles. The global counter-drone market size is expected to reach $1.85 billion by 2024 as incidences of unauthorized use of UAVs and acts of terror using drones rise.

Given that major proliferation of drones is underway in the Subcontinent, India needs to devote adequate attention to developing and mainstreaming counter-drone technologies. India has a unique opportunity to learn some of the lessons of how counter-drone technology is evolving in the United States and being utilized by federal law enforcement agencies. Given C-UAS technologies are dependent on innovation, industries in India can collaborate with counter-drone tech companies in the United States and become part of the global supply chain of C-UAS tech.

On February 1, 2019, CNBC reported that by 2022 the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) expects that there will be 2.9 million drones flying in the United States. While commercial drones are beneficial to the national economy, the rapid multiplication of drones in the skies poses significant security risks. As greater numbers of drones are flying dangerously close to commercial and private aircraft, there have been several near misses between drones and aircraft. While reining in rogue drones has received significant attention during the last five years, there are several outstanding challenges as all counter-drone technologies need to reconcile with legal and safety mechanisms. The FAA considers drones to be aircraft and does not allow shooting down an aircraft, thus making shooting down drones illegal and a federal crime in the United States. Only the federal government’s law enforcement agencies have been granted the authority to employ C-UAS technologies, thus his suggesting that counter-drone adoption measures will take place in close coordination with FAA laws.

In July 2018, the FAA updated its guidance on “Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Detection and Countermeasures” and underscored that successful mitigation of rogue drones is reliant on accurate detection. One of the major findings of the FAA report is that the “low technical readiness of C-UAS systems, combined with a multitude of other factors, such as geography, interference, location of the majority of reported VAS sightings, and cost of deployment and operation, demonstrate this technology is not ready for use in domestic civil airport environments.” The report emphasized the challenges of C-UAS technologies and the potential risks of targeted UAS when engaged in airport environment, which can introduce greater hazards than it is intended to mitigate.

Despite the slow pace of adoption of counter drone tech, it is pertinent that law enforcement agencies and security officials will need to be prepared, trained, and equipped to counter hostile drones. The U.S. Congress recognized that the need for counter-drone tech will only grow and, therefore, in the 2017 and 2018 National Defense Authorization Acts (NDAAs) enabled limited C-UAS authority to the Department of Defense and Energy. Notwithstanding these challenges, there are several companies, such as SkySafe, DeDrone, Fortem, that are working with the Department of Defense (DoD) to keep unwanted drones in check; though the real challenge continues to be the regulatory battle. For instance, SkySafe does not only track drones but also intercepts them, but hacking and/or intercepting drones is illegal in the United States. It is, therefore, important that companies, local and federal government agencies have a greater level of coordination when it comes to counter drones technologies.

With an increasing boom of the commercial drone market in India, drones are becoming cheaper, smaller, more agile, and stealthier. After several incidents of drone sightings around Indian airports, the government is investing in the development of reliable, safe and secure C-UAS technologies. For example, the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) has taken up the development of high-intensity laser weapons. Additionally, the Indian government’s Bureau of Civil Aviation and Security (BCAS) has been engaging with two Israeli companies to develop drone disabling technologies around Indian airports. This technology primarily looks at two categorization of skills – soft kill (a drone which flies into a secured airspace can be destabilized and its system frozen) and hard kill (the drone can be destroyed).

The growth in the market of counter-drone technology is another area where the industry in both India and the United States can cooperate. The BCAS can work with the U.S. industries and federal law enforcement agencies to navigate the policies adopted and the regulatory challenges involved in the lawful elimination of drones.

There is also a major component of learning lessons from the United States and applying them in the Indian context to foster a culture of safety and responsibility throughout the drone industry. For instance, to mitigate rogue drones near the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) sites, the Office of Defense Nuclear Security has deployed its first C-UAS platform. The NNSA worked in partnership with the FAA for the designation of Los Alamos Lab as a “No-Drone Zone” and to set up a system to detect, identify, track, and intercept unsanctioned drones at Los Alamos National Laboratory. It would be in India’s security interest to draw upon the lessons from the NNSA-FAA collaboration to better understand the capabilities, functional efficacy, and ease of handling of anti-drone technology. Additionally, training a specific team – either the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) personnel or the Air Traffic Controllers (ATC) – staff at airports would be highly beneficial for the Indian security establishment.

Some Key Considerations for the Way Forward

The use and utility of commercial drones are on the rise and expectedly will continue to grow. As there are some significant developments for new regulatory frameworks for drones in India, there is an opportunity for New Delhi to increase partnership with the United States on commercial drones. India will need to fine-tune its regulatory policies on commercial drone laws according to international standards. The increasing number of drones in the sky and the growing number of violations – accidental or criminal – also incentivizes Indian and American industries to collaborate on counter-drone tools to keep out unwanted drones. Drone technology in the commercial sector has the potential to create tremendous impact with regard to job creation, increasing productivity, and efficiency. However, there will be considerable concerns about both the promise of the technology and its ability to carry out tasks while ensuring safety, security and privacy of citizens. Expectations regarding drone technology in the commercial sector need to be more pragmatic and rooted in reality.

Expectations regarding drone technology in the commercial sector need to be more pragmatic and rooted in reality.

Despite the rapid advances of drone technology, there needs to be significant progress in several aspects of the technology: autonomous flights (this technology is still developing but it allows drones to fly without a user directing their flight); and battery performance (improvements in battery technology are expected to boost drone flight time). Though some of these improvements will allow commercial drones to fly for longer durations without battery recharging, the drone technology can fall short of the promise. It is important for industry players and policymakers to temper expectations of what drone technology as a whole can achieve, given it is still evolving and is not a fully mature technology.

Drones are not horizontal technology (i.e. the movement and transfer of this technology from one sector to the other is not easily possible.) (Horizontal technology refers to application of a technology across different sectors without much investment in R&D. An example would be e-commerce where selling a book is similar to selling a laptop.) The most disruptive technologies that have made huge impacts on consumer use are horizontal technologies like e-commerce. However, since drones are not a horizontal technology, there would be significant expenditure on R&D in every sector where drone applications are envisioned. For example, the last-mile delivery drones will require a very different approach than farm surveillance by drones. Last-mile delivery will require precision, timeliness, accuracy, interaction with humans, and an understanding of potential obstacles. Farm surveillance applications will require imaging technology, stability in dire environmental conditions, and autonomy. This again indicates that there needs to be a management of expectations on the commercial drones’ impact across sectors.

In the Indian context, it is clear that the development of the commercial drones sector will happen in close coordination with the Indian government. However, experts warn that stiff regulations could stifle the commercial drones sector from flourishing. There must be a balanced approach where the government is able to safeguard an individual’s privacy, monitor drones that could harm national security, but simultaneously encourage policies that enable the commercial drones sector to flourish.

To conclude, it is important to highlight that although much of the recent debate on drones has centered on the state’s use of drones for surveillance and military purposes, the use of drones by and for civil society deserves attention. For any underlying opportunity in the case of the commercial drone market in India, there is a vital need for enabling policies and handholding between India and the United States. For a smooth launch and progress of the commercial drone industry in India, there needs to be policy consensus and coordination among the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, the Ministry of Civil Aviation, the Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade, and Niti Ayog, among others. Moreover, there also needs to be significant investment from the government on drone education – training pilots, capacity building for manufacturing, registration and tracking of drones, certification of remote pilots and other professional drone services. The time is right and ripe for India to collaborate with the United States on the development of its commercial drone sector, setting and strengthening the regulatory landscape to allow commercial drones to be used effectively and safely and also for the scalability of the technology.


Sylvia Mishra is a Scoville Fellow and her research focuses on nuclear strategy and nonproliferation, Southern Asian security and nuclear dynamics, U.S. policy in Indo-Pacific, and emerging and disruptive technologies.

This paper is written from an exploratory strategic lens underscoring why India and the United States ought to focus on bolstering partnership on commercial drones. The paper immensely benefited from interviews and discussions with Peter W. Singer, Arthur Holland Michel, Rachel Stohl, Sharon Burke, Bhaskar Kanungo, Allegra Harpootlian, and Col. Dennis Wille.

This article has been cross-posted with permission from New America under CC BY-4.0 licence. The original article can be found here

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