In December 2018, runway operations at London’s Gatwick Airport were halted for around 36 hours after a drone was sighted in the area. Nearly 1,000 flights were cancelled, stranding around 140,000 travellers in what was described as the greatest interruption to air travel since the Icelandic volcanic ash cloud of 2010. Since then, some local councils in the United Kingdom such as Coventry have framed policies that would ban drones from open public spaces out of concern for privacy.

India imposed a blanket ban on drones in 2014. In the following years, though, it came to be seen as impractical. So, the government crafted a regulatory policy, which came into effect on December 1.

The new drone policy has stirred excitement about the opportunities it could open up. Drones can help reduce human intervention in such sectors as aviation. They can also be used to gather precise spatial data, the lack of which has impeded India’s city planning and administration.

Such policies, however, must come armed with a precise safety and security framework and a robust institutional and logistical set-up to ensure they are not misused. While the new drone policy establishes an intricate system of application and approval procedures, it is lacking when it comes to thorough monitoring of drones. It also ignores the implications of free movement of smaller drones, which have been exempted from many of the regulatory procedures.

The policy classifies drones based on their “all-up weight”, or the total weight with cargo and fuel. Nano drones weigh up to 250 grams, micro drones 250 grams to 2 kg, small drones 2 kg to 25 kg, medium drones 25 kg to 150 kg, large drones upwards of 150 kg.

India’s civil aviation regulations generally apply to all remotely piloted aircraft systems, including drones. Any entity purchasing or importing such a system have to take approvals from multiple agencies, including the Director General of Civil Aviation. They are also required to obtain a Unique Identification Number or an Unmanned Aircraft Operator Permit.

Drone operators have to ensure all mandated security measures are in place before each flight. They cannot transport any hazardous material and must have insurance for any damage to a third party. Violating the regulations could lead to their permits being suspended or cancelled.

The new policy, however, exempts certain categories of drones from such regulations. For example, nano drones flying below 15 metres in uncontrolled airspace for commercial, recreational, and research and development purposes are completely exempt. Their operators do not even need to obtain a Unique Identification Number. For micro drones operating below 60 metres, it is mandatory to inform the local police 24 hours before starting operations. But there is no centralised monitoring mechanism to ensure this procedure is followed.

Such exemptions are likely to cause a mushrooming of drone operators. In that event, how will the government monitor all drones flying below 15 meters?

A drone spotted during a city survey by the Indian Institute for Human Settlements in Navi Mumbai, Maharashtra, in August 2018. Photo credit: Mukesh Yadav
A drone spotted during a city survey by the Indian Institute for Human Settlements in Navi Mumbai, Maharashtra, in August 2018. Photo credit: Mukesh Yadav

Need for more clarity

Since Indian cities are growing vertically, having nano drones flying around without much regulation may lead to the invasion of privacy. They may also be misused for unethical activities such as corporate espionage, trespassing, surveillance, unauthorised photography and burglary.

India has witnessed several instances of unidentified drone activity in recent years. Operations at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi were suspended for about 40 minutes on August 20, 2017 after a pilot spotted a drone nearby. There was a similar scare on July 25, 2018 and again on August 9. Earlier, in December 2017, there had been four episodes in 14 days of unidentified flying objects disrupting operations at the Delhi airport.

Is the government equipped to deal with such emergencies, which could increase in number and frequency now that some drone can be operated without restriction?

Then, there is the question of privacy. The new policy explains the privacy protocol in a single line: “The remote pilot shall be liable to ensure that privacy norms of any entity are not compromised in any manner.”

It does not provide for a mechanism to check whether the operators are adhering to the norms. In fact, there’s not enough clarity about what the norms are to begin with.

While the policy directs the operators to follow the regulatory checks, it does not outline an automated mechanism to guarantee safe and secure operation at low elevations. The policy also does not provide for a way to monitor how drones collect, use, store and share data.

The policy, on the whole, appears shortsighted. It does not account for the rapid advances in artificial intelligence that could lead to unexpected applications of drones. Further, it does not contain any arrangement for resolving conflict between rival drones operations. Unless there is more clarity about the operational mechanism, vigilance and privacy, the policy will remain feeble in terms of adaptability, usage and security, hampering its overall vision.

India’s new drone policy can benefit from stricter rules on surveillance. In the United States, several states have placed limits on drone-based surveillance, requiring some form of a warrant from the police to operate drones. Rhode Island has proposed detailed legislation prohibiting the use of drones for facial recognition or capturing any images.

Such measures as well as a more comprehensive system for approving applications, renewing permits, alerting the agencies concerned to deal with emergencies, and recording the history of a vehicle can strengthen the policy’s applications. This can help India use drones effectively for not just aerial mapping but also in disaster management, traffic control, policing, security, environmental studies and agriculture.

Mukesh Yadav is an urban planner and a member of the practice team at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements. He works in the fields of urban planning, governance and policy advisory using remote sensing and GIS as a tool.

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