Understanding Drone Law in India in the Times of COVID-19

Shagufta Parveen, Associate, L&L Partners

Satyadarshi Kunal, Senior Associate, L&L Partners

Introduction

With the onset of a pandemic which has systematically crippled the entire world and need of the hour to minimise human contact, the requirement of no touch/contact delivery of goods and services shall see an escalated demand in the near future, thus an increased demand of drones. Drones are heavily regulated under Indian legal regime, majorly for security concerns, however, recently a trend has been observed in India in systematic reduction of the regulation, especially in the light of COVID-19 whereas certain conditional exemptions to the government entities in the operation of remotely piloted aircraft operation was granted by Ministry of Civil Aviation.[1] However, it may be noted that the exemptions were only granted to the limited Remotely piloted aircraft (“RPA”) deployed by authorized entity being an entity under the Union Government, State Government, District Administration or Government Institutions by submitting an online application at Directorate General of Civil Aviation’s Digital Sky platform established especially for online registration and subsequent usage of RPA and unmanned aircraft (“UA”). These exemptions set a tone for the future possibilities of usage of the drones in the commercial sphere.

RPA and UA are aircrafts and their associated elements which are operated with no pilot on board. They are piloted from a remote pilot station. A remotely piloted aircraft, its associated remote pilot station(s) command and control links and other components forms a Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (“RPAS”)/ Unmanned Aircraft System (“UAS”). The broad regulatory framework for civil usage of RPA and UA are provided under:

  • Civil Aviation Requirements Section 3 – Air Transport Series – X Part 1 Issue I dated August 29, 2018 issued by Directorate General of Civil Aviation (“DGCA”) effective from December 1, 2018[2] (“CAR Regulations”);
  • AIP Supplement 164 of 2018 issued by the Airports Authority of India dated November 30, 2019 (“AIP Supplement”); and
  • RPAS Guidance Manual issued on June 03, 2019 by the DGCA (“Guidance Manual”).

Feasibility of drone usage in commercial sphere in India is still under pipeline and a drone ecosystem roadmap for future usage of drones was developed by task-force deployed by Ministry of Civil aviation on the recommendation for CAR 2.0 (“Drone Roadmap”).  The focus of this tentative regulation was to address frontier issues such as Beyond Visual Line of Sight (“BVLOs”) & Autonomous Operations.

Different categories of RPA

RPA and UA for civil usage are categorised in accordance with Maximum All-Up-Weight (including payload) and depending upon its Maximum All-Up Weight, different registration and compliance requirements are applicable to the RPAs and UAs. The RPAs and UAs are broadly categorised as:

  • Nano : Less than or equal to 250 grams (0.551156 Pounds).
  • Micro: Greater than 250 grams (0.551156 Pounds) and less than or equal to 2 kilograms (4.40925 Pounds).
  • Small: Greater than 2 kilograms (4.40925 Pounds) and less than or equal to 25 kilograms (55.1156 Pounds).
  • Medium: Greater than 25 kilograms (55.1156 Pounds) and less than or equal to 150 kilograms (330.693 Pounds).
  • Large: Greater than 150 kilograms (330.693 Pounds).

Requirements for Application, Registration and operation of RPAS/UAS

The application and registration requirement for RPAS/UAS vary depending on number of factors including their sizes, whether they have been purchased locally or imported amongst other factors. A brief synopsis of the application and registration process of RPAS/UAS in India is provided below:

1. The applicant shall have to obtain equipment type approval from WPC Wing, Department of Telecommunication for operating in de-licensed band(s). For imported RPA/UA, additional import clearance/license from DGCA is required to be obtained.

2. An application is required to be submitted in the prescribed format[3] to the digital sky platform as provided by Ministry of Aviation by the applicant for issuance of Unique Identification Number (“UIN”)/Unmanned Aircraft Operator Permit as applicable. Additionally, for flying in controlled airspace, filing of flight plan and obtaining Air Defence Clearance (“ADC”)/Flight Information Centre (“FIC”) number shall be necessary.

3. A UIN shall be only granted where the RPAS is wholly owned either:

    • By a citizen of India; or
    • By the Central Government or any State Government or any company or corporation owned or controlled by either of the said Governments; or
    • By a company or a body corporate provided that:
      1. it is registered and has its principal place of business within India;
      2. its chairman and at least two-thirds of its directors are citizens of India; and,
      3. its substantial ownership and effective control is vested in Indian nationals; or
    • By a company or corporation registered elsewhere than in India, provided that such company or corporation has leased the RPAS to any organization mentioned in point (a) or (c) above.

4. Exemptions for obtaining UIN are provided to RPA in Nano category intended to fly up to 50 feet (15 meters) above ground level in uncontrolled airspace/enclosed premises for commercial/recreational/ R&D purposes. RPAs owned by the National Technical Research Organisation (“NTRO”), Administrative Reforms Commission (“ARC”) and Central Intelligence Agencies are also exempted from obtaining UIN.

5. Unmaned Aircraft Operator Permit (“UAOP”) from DCGA shall be required for RPA operators except for nano RPS operating below 50 feet above ground level and micro RPAs operating below 200 feet above ground level uncontrolled airspace/enclosed premises. The applicant has additional requirement to intimate the local police office 24 hours prior to conduct of actual operations. Additionally, the agencies as indicated as indicated above are exempted from obtaining UAOP.

6. Upon confirmation that all the approvals/clearances and equipment related specifications as specified in the CAR Regulations, the UIN shall be issued to the applicant. One of the unique and mandatory equipment related specification for flying of drones in India is compliance with NPNT (No Permission, No Takeoff) and a Manufacturer’s Certificate to back it up.

7. As of now, under the CAR Regulations, the RPAS/UAS are permitted within the Visual Line of Sight (“VLOS”) during day time and up to a maximum 400 feet altitude although the DGCA has invited expressions of interest from experts for conducting experimental BVLOS drone operations in India.

8. The RPAs/UAs are not permitted to fly in no-RPA zone as specified in the CAR Regulations which includes certain strategic locations. The RPAs/UAs are permitted to fly in “restricted” or “yellow zone” after obtaining Air Defence Clearance and “unrestricted zone” or “green zone” after obtaining permission from the Digital Sky Platform.

In the light of COVID-19, vide notification dated April 3, 2020, approval to operate NPNT drones in six green zone sites were provided by the Ministry of Civil Aviation (“MoCA”). The assigned zone are geometric circles, each with a 10 kilometres (6.21371 miles) diameter (ground area around 78.5 square kilometres (0.386102 square miles) each with centre points located at the places as notified. Further the state administration and the local administrators were requested to facilitate operations of such NPNT compliant drones.

Apart from the requirements specified above, the CAR Regulations provides for extensive rules regulating the design and manufacture of all drones apart from nano and micro drones. These are contained in an annexure to the CAR Regulations (Annexure XIV) and regulate items such as all-up weight, wing span and rotor diameter, stall speed, cruise speed, range, endurance, operational altitude, ceiling height, propeller speed, powerplant, payload, shock absorbing mechanisms, type of data link used for communication, type of material for construction, fabrication method, structural protection against deterioration or loss of strength, compliance with the Digital Sky platform specifications for NPNT, global navigation satellite system receivers for horizontal and vertical position fixing, geo-fencing capabilities, autonomous flight termination system or return to home function, flashing anti-collision strobe lights, radio frequency identification, flight controller with flight data logging capability, automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast equipment, etc. The Guidance Manual further clarifies the matter by stating that a manufacturer should develop and ensure that their drones meet the minimum standards specified in the CAR Regulations, and should also carry out necessary tests as may be required on the test sites specified by the government.

Enforcement Action

The CAR Regulations clearly state that in case of violation of provisions of the CAR Regulations/ approved operating conditions, the UIN/ UAOP issued by DGCA shall be suspended/ cancelled. Further, breach of compliance to any of the requirements and falsification of records/ documents shall attract penal action including imposition of penalties as per applicable IPCs (such as 287, 336, 337, 338 or any relevant section of IPC). Necessary actions shall be taken as per relevant sections of the Aircraft Act 1934 / the Aircraft Rules 1937 or any statutory provisions.

Sectoral Trends

In India, usage of drones are majorly in military and defence sector and recently, agricultural and infrastructural sector are seeing increased usage of drones. Under the present legal regime, usage of drones for commercial usage are very restricted and usage of drones for delivery of good/services are prohibited[4]. As, the regulations do not permit BVLOS operations, the full potential of drone technology has not been exploited. The CAR is intended to be amended in the near future to cater to the dynamic industry and to expand the ambit of the regulations to give a boost to the industry. The compliance norm for drones are very high and restrictive due to security concerns and thus, inadvertently acts as a deterrent for new entries in the market. Thus, to liberalize the regime further and tap the potential uses of drones especially for commercial purposes, the Drone Roadmap was introduced. Subsequently, several new initiatives were launched by the authorities focused towards capacity building of the drone ecosystem in 2019 and this trend continues in 2020.

A) Invitation by DGCA for expressions of interest to conduct experimental BVLOS operations

On May 13, 2019 the DGCA had invited an expression of interest[5] from interested organizations willing and able to conduct experimental beyond visual line of sight (“BVLOS“) operations of remotely piloted aircrafts or drones in Indian airspace. By allowing companies to provide proof of concept for the use of drone technology, the authorities adopted an evidence-based regulatory approach which can potentially transform the drone industry by paving the way for regulations allowing more enhanced operations by drones. The willingness shown by the DGCA and other concerned authorities to incorporate use of drones in the civil aviation ecosystem of the country was welcomed by all.

B) National Counter Rogue Drone Guidelines

In 2019, the MoCA also released the National Counter Rogue Drone Guidelines (“NCRD Guidelines“)[6] with an aim to address the perceived law and order and national security issues that are anticipated due to unregulated and unchecked operation of drones. The NCRD Guidelines aims to bring out the various counter rogue drone measures and guidelines that can be deployed to address the relevant threats in an effective manner. The scope of the NDRD Guidelines includes:

  • Laying out guidelines for assessing the drone threat
  • Creating awareness about the various technologies involved in handling drone threat
  • Ready reckoner for anti-drone measures
  • Understanding multi-dimensionality of drone threats

C) Website launched for granting permission for aerial photography/ remote sensing survey

On January 6, 2020, a web portal[7] was launched by Ministry of Defence for undertaking aerial survey with the final permission of DGCA. The portal shall be used by various vendors engaged by state governments/public sector undertakings/autonomous bodies in seeking no objection certificate from Ministry of Defence.

Through this initiative, the Ministry of Defence will be able to reduce the time usually taken in issuing NOC and will ensure expeditious disposal of applications for carrying out aerial survey and/ or remote sensing surveys.

D) One-time opportunity for voluntary disclosure of unregulated drones

Several instances of unmanned aircrafts or drones being operated in Indian airspace, without complying with the Drone Regulations, have come to the notice of the Government. To facilitate the identification of such unregulated and non-compliant drones, the MoCA has issued a public notice dated January 13, 2020 providing a one-time opportunity for their voluntary disclosure. This requirement of voluntary disclosure is applicable on all drones, which includes models, prototypes, toys, radio-controlled aircraft, autonomous and remotely piloted aircraft systems etc. Additionally, such drones can be enlisted without having to comply with the NPNT requirement.

Conclusion

In the light of COVID-19 and with likelihood of drones becoming an indispensable need of the society, the usage of drones can no longer being looked at exclusively for military use but rather as a game changing innovation for civilian use especially for delivering food and medical supplies. The consumers, organizations and government see value in utilizing drones. Thus, there is a pressing need for evolving the regulatory environment of drone ecosystem to meet the demand in the market.


Shagufta Parveen is an Associate at L&L Partners. She is a graduate from National Law University, Jodhpur (2012-2017), qualified to practice Indian laws with an experience of over three years in Banking, Finance and Fintech laws. She can be reached here.

Satyadarshi Kunal is a Senior Associate at L&L Partners. He is a graduate from Hidayatullah National Law University, Raipur (2006-2011), Lawyer qualified to practice Indian laws with an experience of more than nine years in Banking, Finance, Fintech and Technology laws. He can be reached here.

Views are personal.


Photo Credits: ARUN SANKAR/AFP

Notes:

[1] “Conditional exemption to Government entities for COVID-19 related RPAS operations”, 2 May, 2020, Government of India, Ministry of Civil Aviation, SD and IT Division, AV-22011/2/2020-SDnIT-MoCA

[2]https://public-prd-dgca.s3.ap-south-1.amazonaws.com/InventoryList/headerblock/drones/D3X-X1.pdf

[3] Annexure IB as provided in the CAR Regulations

[4] FAQ as available on Digital Sky Platform.

[5] Invitation for Expression of Interest (EOI) for conducting experimental beyond visual line sight (BVLOS) operations of remotely piloted aircraft (RPA), Office of the Director General of Civil Aviation,   Available at http://164.100.60.133/tenders/EOI-BVLOS(May2019).pdf

[6] Available here

[7] www.modnoc.ncog.gov.in

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