Chinese drone maker DJI has recommended that India’s Civil Aviation Ministry look at remote identification of drones instead of insisting on the no permission no takeoff (NPNT) protocol that is currently mandated in India, the company’s policy lead for India and Sri Lanka, Mitul Arora said while speaking to MediaNama. Remote ID is the ability of a drone in flight to provide identification information that can be received by other parties. This is one of the recommendations that the company has made to the Ministry as part of a consultation process on the draft drone rules, which ended on July 10. DJI is perhaps the biggest drone manufacturer globally, and claims a market share of about 70%.

The draft rules, which were published last month, are an effort to form dedicated regulation around drone usage, as they are currently regulated as part of Civil Aviation Requirements (CAR), enacted in December 2018, under the Aircraft Act. According to current drone regulations, a clearance is required from the DGCA before each drone takes flight. Called NPNT (no permission no takeoff), it is conceptually a green signal without which drones aren’t authorised to fly. The new draft rules have retained this particular requirement.

DJI on why NPNT isn’t feasible, and its future in India amid tensions with China

However, when the government had first enacted drone regulations in December 2018, DJI had openly criticised the NPNT protocol saying that it “places heavy restrictions on the location, flight path, and time for operating drones, including a colour-coded system for how and where drones can fly”. It disliked NPNT so much so that it even said that it won’t “introduce the majority of our products to India until regulators re-evaluate Digital Sky”. It has been over one and a half years since the enactment of the regulation, and the Digital Sky platform is yet to be functional to allow NPNT clearance. The Civil Aviation Ministry has worked “very hard” to operationalise the Digital Sky platform but there are challenges to something this complex, Arora said.

Why remote ID is better than NPNT, per DJI: In contrast, Arora argued that Remote ID is a far simpler feat to achieve as it “can be implemented with just a firmware update on most drones”. These technologies were less accessible in the past, he said, “but are now being implemented by regulators around the world and there is a globally recognised standard in place that can easily be adopted by any country”. “The remote identification system along with geofencing national security sites and airports is a good way to advance the drone industry within the Indian market in a way that is safe and secure,” Arora added.

GARUD platform shows NPNT shortcomings: The government has announced a portal called GARUD to fast track clearance of drones used for COVID-19 containment exercises. This is essentially a stop gap measure until the Digital Sky platform can handle NPNT permissions, and also gives some amount of legality to drones flying in India. “We appreciate MoCA’s [Civil Aviation Ministry] quick decision to launch the GARUD portal so that government agencies can use drones without NPNT and Digital Sky,” Arora said. Despite having the NPNT norm in place, law enforcement agencies have indulged in unabashed drone surveillance, without obtaining a permission from the ministry or the civil aviation regulator — a fact which MediaNama has thoroughly documented in its reporting from Delhi, Mumbai, Amritsar, Kerala, and Telangana.

The govt has itself been clearing DJI drones despite knowing NPNT non-compliance: Moreover, despite knowing that none of the DJI’s drones are NPNT compliant, the Ministry itself has been allowing other government institutions to use drones made by DJI, with the latest example being the Indian Oil Corporation Limited. “There are a number of users who either through a waiver or under the GARUD exemptions are using DJI products. We are obviously glad to see that agencies are using our products to increase public safety during the COVID-19 crisis,” Arora said.

On being a ‘Chinese ‘ company and its future: The brewing border tensions between India and China have led the former to change its stance against the latter in several economic sectors. First India limited FDI flow from the country, and more recently, banned 59 apps developed by Chinese companies. When asked if the weakened relations between India and China could have a bearing on DJI’s future in India, Arora didn’t give a direct response and said that, “while there are many things happening around the world which is outside our control, we continue to focus on developing technologies and solutions that our customers need”.

He added: “If you ask me where I would like to see DJI in 3 years from now in India, I would like to be standing here with 10, 15, 20 or more Indian businesses that have built global offerings using our platforms, just as companies have in the US, EU, Australia and elsewhere.  But the whole industry needs the government to embrace the new technology available and enable the industry to really advance”.

Other stakeholders’ recommendations to the draft rules: