The Ministry of Civil Aviation released the Unmanned Aircraft Services Rules (UAS Rules) 2021 earlier last month. At the outset, it aims to regulate the production, trade and ownership of UAS. These have been released in consultation with stakeholders and comments from the public on the draft UAS Rules released in 2020. This is the superseding legislation governing Unmanned Aircraft Services or Drones and makes earlier regulations released in 2018 ineffective.
The Unmanned Aircraft (UA) or Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) is an airborne system or an aircraft operated remotely by a human operator or autonomously by an onboard computer. Drones offer low-cost, safe and quick aerial services and are being used in industries like mining, agriculture, healthcare and key government projects like the North Eastern Space Applications Center for purposes like damage assessments, large scale mapping and 3-Dimensional Terrain Model Construction. Last month, the Ministry of Civil Aviation gave conditional exemption to the Government of Telangana and Indian Council of Medical Research with IIT Kanpur to conduct experimental delivery of vaccines using drones under Rule 70 of UAS Rules 2021.
The new rules extend their jurisdiction beyond Indian territory to all UAS registered in India, even when they are flying outside the territory. It broadens the classification of UAS as –
They are further divided into five categories based on their weight, maximum speed, height and range attainable.
While the rules can be regarded as a progression from previous regulations, the rules have received significant criticism from stakeholders. Especially disappointed are start-up ventures like Swiggy, Zomato as well as e-commerce ventures as the current draft states no Unmanned Aircraft may carry a payload i.e. items carried by a drone save, as specified by the Director-General under Rule 36 and 38. These could include delivery packages but have not been clarified in the bill. It further prohibits dropping of any payload while a drone is in motion “except in a manner and procedure as specified by the Director-General”. These restrictions come despite the government allowing trails for several drone and e-commerce companies to carry out BVLOS projects (beyond visual line of sight) essentially green-lighting them to test delivery of goods using drones, among other things.
In addition to confusion pertaining to their operations, there is also ambiguity surrounding licensing requirements. The draft stipulates an authorization framework for all authorised persons in the drone ecosystem to obtain necessary licenses and approvals. A certificate of “Manufacture and Airworthiness” is required to be obtained by Authorised UAS manufacturers and importers to ensure that the specifications of their aircraft are in accordance with the issued guidelines. However the said entity had been defined to mean any person engaged in manufacturing/ importing of a UAS or any component of UAS or assembled UAS with components procured either locally or internationally. This extends the onus of meeting certain guidelines and obtaining a certificate to assemblers, manufacturers and importers of different parts as well. Even after obtaining this certificate, the manufacturers need to obtain a Unique Identification Certificate (UIC) and a Unique Identification Number (UIN) before transferring it to traders and owners. Keeping in view that multiple certifications may be required (for each component and for the final drone) and that some components also have alternative uses, these ambiguous and excessive rules could adversely affect the drone industry in India. All drone operators will also be required to obtain a UAS Operator Permit (UAOP) for persons tasked with ensuring flight operations are safe, privacy concerns are met, and compliance of all relevant local laws and regulations during flight operations. It is still unclear whether the same person can obtain different authorisations under the rules simultaneously to undertake two or more activities.
The rules prohibit Foreign Entities or their India subsidiaries from registering as Authorised Person which is in conflict with the government’s efforts to invite foreign investments. Notably, this restriction has been a feature of all previous regulations and stakeholders have stated their concerns on this. It also overestimates the capabilities of the nascent Indian drone industry by closing doors on international collaborations. In addition to these problems, issues with Digital Sky Platform continue to concern those involved in the ecosystem. The suggestion to strengthen the technological backbone of the platform has not been included in the draft.
The proposed licensing regime overcomplicates the licensing process and is also ambiguous at some points. The developers are apprehensive as they feel that their drones would become economically impracticable in today’s rapidly evolving markets by the time they meet all the standards. Failure to meet any of the guidelines also makes them liable to pay heavy penalties mentioned under the rules. They are afraid that these excessive restrictions would hinder them from tapping into the recreational and commercial potential of the technology.
However, the ministry is not entirely apathetic to these shortcomings. The DCGA is also expected to issue a separate set of guidelines for the commercial uses of drones as quoted in The Hindu. Since the pandemic has revealed the far reaching benefits of drone technology especially in deliveries of vaccines in Ghana, the Ministry of Civil Aviation continues to work towards their goal of making India the drone capital of the world. Given the novelty of this technology along with risks such as drone based national security threats from rivaling nations, it is only rational for the Ministry to tread these waters cautiously.
By Dhriti Gupta and Antara Vats
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