Four years after imposing a blanket ban on drone operations, the government brought in the Civil Aviation Regulations (CAR) 1.0 in December 2018, which set the regulatory framework for civilian drone operations. The government launched DigitalSky, a portal to support drone operators and manufacturers, but stringent conditions and rules have constrained drone operations from taking off meaningfully. Registration was made compulsory for drones in a specific weight category and at higher altitudes, along with GPS and other safety measures. But, the no-permission-no-takeoff rule (NPNT)—this requires a drone to get a digital certificate each time it flies—was something that industry manufacturers were hardly prepared to incorporate. Maharashtra’s latest initiative, thus, may usher in a more liberalised regulatory framework, provided it doesn’t run afoul of the central norms. According to a Times of India report, the state has signed an MoU with Zipline, a US-based company, to use drones for faster delivery of life-saving medicines in health centres. Earlier this year, Maharashtra became the first state to launch a drone-based aerial survey.
This opens up the space for commercial operations, as companies would need to go beyond the remit of CAR 1.0, which stipulates that a drone cannot be operated from a remote location. The government put out a new policy document in January this year, and announced pilots for experiments in beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) in May; Maharashtra’s adoption may fast-track the process. Besides, it may also help formulate guidelines on autonomous operations, which are also a part of draft rules. The government had allowed manned-drone services, but autonomous driving, and BVLOS are essential for commercial success. For instance, if an Amazon were to use drones for delivery, employing a pilot for each one, ensuring that they are not outside the line of sight of the ground-based operator would make drone operations costly and unviable. With rules stipulating that drones cannot be operated from a moving vehicle, it was not clear how they could ever be used for delivery in the first place.
More than that, the government also needs to relax guidelines on licenses and operations. India did well to follow the example of the UK, Australia, and other countries in forming rules for operations, such as NPNT, but even these countries have watered down such provisions. Licensing of drones cannot be the same as aircraft licensing. So, it needs a new department for drone regulation, either within or apart from the DGCA. Further, monitoring needs to happen in real-time, and the DGCA, even with the DigitalSky, has no way to ensure this. The sector can’t wait another four years for a timely delivery.