Drones are very powerful tools to provide high-resolution images and terrain information required for projects related to infrastructure development or natural resource management. In India, a country of 1.4 billion people and beset by various challenges relating to resource management and impacts of climate change, drones have the potential to make infrastructure climate-resilient, saving enormous sums of money and improving the lives and livelihoods of millions.
However, the scientific applications of drones in India have remained limited so far primarily due to (a) a fairly restrictive policy on usage of drones, (b) lack of adequate expertise to apply drone surveys for scientific applications, (c) safety and security concerns related to drone operations.
It is widely believed that the benefits that can be accrued from the application of drones in various sectors significantly outweigh the problems and risks perceived by the concerned agencies and the wider public. Therefore, a critical understanding of the power of this technology and its applications is necessary. This technology has a long way to go, and a fast-growing economy like India’s cannot afford to lag behind in applying this technology.
As a part of the Frontier Technology Livestreaming (FTL) project supported by DFID, a pilot was taken up (see previous Medium Post on this) to identify and champion the use of drones for all Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) projects of the Government of India. The MGNREGA is a very large program to support the construction of small infrastructure projects by providing at least 100 days of guaranteed wage employment in a financial year to every household whose adult members volunteer to do unskilled manual work.
The FTL pilot was designed to demonstrate that the planning, monitoring, and evaluation of the assets created through the MGNREGA projects can be significantly enhanced through the use of drones. As a part of this pilot, first an in-field design for using the drones on planning the MGNREGA projects was developed, and then surveys were undertaken for three representative sites across India for demonstrating the advantages and benefits from this technology.
- A pilot in Chhattisgarh state was aimed at designing check dams and farm pond, the most common water harvesting structures in this region (see photo below);
- A pilot in Odisha explored the ways to mitigate land degradation using drone technology;
- A pilot in Bihar attempted to revive the age-old Ahaar-pine system of irrigation in rural areas using high-resolution images and topographic information generated through drones.
In addition to the MGNREGA projects, there are potential applications of drone mapping to enhance and support urban planning in India and to meet the specific needs and requirements that follows-on from the Smart City policy championed by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs.
The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) is the designated authority in India to regulate the use of drones in the country and they have released a set of drone-regulations on 27th August 2018. These regulations are targeted to formalize the productive use of drones for civilian applications both for scientific research and infrastructure planning in India in rural and urban sectors. This post highlights the major points of these regulations and provides suggestions to improve these regulations based on global best practices.
Classification of drones
Before we proceed further, let us first understand the types of drones that are commercially available: Typically, drones are classified on the basis of its weight. The weight of a drone refers to the total weight of the drone and its payload and therefore determines its application to some extent. The DGCA regulations have proposed a weight-based classification of drones as (a) Nano (<250 gm), (b) Micro (>250 gm and < 2Kg), © Small (>2Kg but <25Kg), (d) Medium (>25Kg but <150Kg) and (e) Large: (>150Kg).
For the purpose of rural and urban planning as well as for scientific research, the most applicable category is the Micro category. Therefore, most of the discussion in this article will be focused on microdrones. We will return to the question of the efficacy of this classification a bit later in this article.
Highlights of DGCA regulatory changes, and some concerns
Regarding micro drones, a reading of the proposed DGCA regulations highlights several key points that all users should know before they start using the technology. I also discuss the implications and concerns related to these regulations in terms of their applicability and viability.
All micro-drones will now require Unique Identification Number (UIN), insurance, fireproof ID, a radio frequency tag (RFID) and a SIM card allowing for tracking by the DGCA.
It is important to note that these requirements are not supported by current commercial technology and are also not obligatory in most western countries. In fact, there is no micro-drone in the current commercial market that can comply with these regulations!
The development of these components would, therefore, require an investment of capital and this would dramatically increase the cost. Even if such technology becomes available as separate components, the affixing of these components to existing commercial drones presents increasing safety concerns as the addition of elements to an existing airframe can impact its aerodynamic performance.
In simple terms, this will make all available drones in the commercial market unusable, and it is hard to understand why DGCA would want to do this unless there is a lack of understanding of its implications. This regulation, therefore, needs serious reconsideration.
In addition, the drones should have Equipment Type Approval (ETA) from the Wireless Planning and Coordination (WPC) Wing of Department of Telecommunications for operating in the de-licensed frequency band(s). In other words, all drones need to be approved to use radio frequencies!
Urban and rural planning agencies in India can derive great benefits from low-cost commercial drones, but it’s too onerous for them to ask permission for radio frequency usage. Such permissions should only need to be obtained by the merchants who should be obliged to sell products that comply with Indian law on radio frequency usage. This will go a long way to popularise the use of drones for various applications.
Security clearance from Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) would be required for (a) an individual citizen of India, and (b) an Indian company registered in India or elsewhere. The central and State Government institutions are not required to get MHA clearance.
While this is an important step from a security concern, it requires effective implementation in terms of ease of obtaining security clearances. At this stage, there is very little clarity on the steps to be followed and the process is yet to be made operational possibly due to technical difficulties.
Civilian drone operators will require an Unmanned aircraft Operator Permit (UAOP) equivalent to pilot’s license, except for nano-drones operating below 15 m and micro-drone operating below 60m in uncontrolled airspace/enclosed premises.
Given the widespread use of microdrones, the exemption of microdrones from requiring UAOP would be useful. However, the limitation of 60m height is a little discouraging because most scientific operations fly at 100–120 meters.
Global practices of drone operations: an overview
It is important to view the DGCA regulations in a global context so that we understand their implications in terms of applicability and ease of implementation. It is crucial to make sure that the Indian regulations are at par with the best global practices so that we can compete globally for applying this technology for deriving socio-economic benefits.
A review of regulations for operating drones in different parts of the world suggests that there are several widely accepted practices:
- Drones must be operated within line of sight of the pilot to ensure the safety of the instrument and to ensure connectivity with the base;
- Flying heights for drones should be within 60 to 100 meters so as not to interfere with commercial flights;
- Drones are restricted to fly over densely populated areas although there are no definite directions in terms of limits of urban areas.
- Insurance is commonly required for operating drones so as to cover the public liability in case of any accidents etc .
In the UK, for pilots who wish to fly drones commercially, a license is required and a ‘Permit for Commercial Operations’ (PfCO) has to be obtained. This also gives the pilot some minor additional privileges e.g. (a) can operate drones within 50 meters of cities (urban, inhabited areas), (b) can use controlled airspace if granted permission by local Air Traffic Control and (c) Public liability insurance is required.
In Germany, drones below 2 Kg require no licensing. Drones up to 25Kg may be flown, but above 2Kg licensing is required with the complexity of procedure proportional to the weight of the drone. However, public liability insurance is required.
In France and Italy, flights over urban areas are permitted only by licensed pilots and they can be operated at altitudes up to 150m. Public liability insurance is also required.
It is also important to note that the drones, particularly those falling in micro category (<2 kg weight) do not appear to pose a direct threat to personal safety. The US Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) released a study in March 2017 which observed that drones falling on humans do NOT represent a critical danger except for minor injuries from spinning propeller blades that can be easily mitigated by blade guards.
Further, while some of these considerations are important for operating drones in urban areas, the considerations and operating contexts in other sectors, such as rural planning or mapping of natural resources such as forest cover and water resources, are different and therefore some context-specific regulations must be developed.
Key recommendations from Indian perspectives
Based on these considerations, we recommend that all stakeholders such as NITI AAYOG (National Institution for Transforming India), Ministries of Rural Development, Housing and Urban Affairs, Water Resources, Agriculture, Environment and Forests and several others engage with the DGCA and other concerned users in order to bring the following amendments to the current regulation proposals:
1. The weight classification categories of drones which determine the requirements for operators are too broad. For example, the lowest weight classification of 2–25 kilograms should be further segmented to allow those with the smallest drones of up to 7 or 10 kg to fly with fewer registration and safety requirements than those that would be required for drones between 7 kg and 25 kg in weight. This would allow for increased use of drones in agriculture and infrastructure planning while still maintaining strong safety controls for relatively larger and potentially more hazardous drones.
2. A Risk-based regulation, as opposed to only weight based, could be another potential option, as is followed by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). This system is based on the level of perceived risk in drone operations and includes: (a) Open — low risk drone operations, which do require permissions, (b) Specific, for which risks need to be mitigated through operational limitations, equipment specifications and personnel involved, requires authorization, and (c)certified — similar to piloted aircraft in terms of risk involved; requires certification and licensing.
3. Maintain the need for a Unique ID number and tag, but move this process to a simple online application form. As per the proposed regulations, the approvals related to equipment type, operating frequency bands etc. also have to be obtained from the DGCA. Most of these technical requirements can be fulfilled by the manufacturer itself for DGCA clearance, meaning that these drones will effectively be “pre-certified.” This will expedite the entire process of clearance.
4. Also, it may be beneficial to exempt academic institutions and government organizations from the complex and lengthy process of obtaining permissions and clearances particularly if the use of drones involves developmental projects for societal benefits. At the very least, the process should be limited to providing details of the area of operation, intended applications and types of the drone to be flown etc.
5. Remove the need for micro-drones of less than 2KG to be equipped with RFID tags and SIM cards for tracking, as most of these already have the radio frequency tagging of drones. The DGCA may wish to engage with drone manufacturers to include such features in commercial products, but, at the present time, such requirements would cripple the rising drone industry and lead to India falling behind other nations such as China in the development of drone applications and in the associated economic benefits.
6. Eliminate the requirement for fireproof Identification tags. This regulation might be motivated by in-air accidents but seems to be an unworkable solution at this stage. The nano and mini drones are mass-produced consumer goods, not aviation standard designed systems and made from composite type material and therefore such certification would be difficult. There would also need to be the infrastructure required and the associated workload and costs to create an engraved or stamped UIN tag. Other questions here are: who would create and issue these? Who would attach them?
7. Relax requirements for flying licenses: may be made compulsory for drones above 2 kg category and for operating above 120 m flying altitude as practiced in other countries. Also, the pilot license should be given after clearing “approved training courses” or endorsements available from approved training providers. More important is that such licensed pilots should come with additional privileges and they should not require any further approvals except for public liability insurance.
The further development of drones and their integration in non-segregated airspace will pose new challenges. While today flying a single drone in non-segregated airspace with cooperative aircraft can be done with appropriate coordination and special procedures, the operation of several drones possibly with non-cooperative aircraft will be much more complicated and will require additional measures. However, the recent display of an array of 150 drones during the concluding session of the Kumbh, world’s largest congregation of well over a million people at the confluence of the Ganga and Yamuna rivers at Allahabad, demonstrates that we do have sound safety measures in place for operating drones in non-segregated airspace.
In a country like India, the potential of drone application for scientific as well as commercial sector is enormous and the technical expertise to handle this challenge has been steadily growing. There seems to be a general acceptance and willingness in the government and private sectors to use this powerful technology for public use for various reasons — cost of operation, data quality, ease of data collection and repeatability. Therefore, simplifying the regulations for drone operations and streamlining the process for obtaining the necessary clearance for safe and effective use of drones makes a lot of sense and this could deliver huge benefits for the country.
Note: This review was undertaken as a part of the Frontier Technology Livestreaming and DFID India’s Infrastructure for Climate Resilient Growth programmes.