Regulations on UAVs in the offing, concerns remain

Eighteen months after it banned the flying of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) by non-government entities, India’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) has in April last week come up with draft rules on the civilian use of UAVs and drones. The ban was imposed on October 7, 2014, saying there is a need for a Civil Aviation Regulation (CAR) regarding UAS. It had cited concerns on aviation safety if it UAS allowed without any regulation. With “high density” of manned aircraft traffic in cities, the DGCA felt that UAS poses threat for air collisions and accidents due to lack of regulation, operating procedures and uncertainty of technology. After a series of deliberations with Ministries of Home Affairs and Defence, the regulator asked stakeholders to submit their response by May 21. Once it is cleared, India will become the sixth country to have regulations to deal with UAS’ civilian use.

However, concerns have been raised over UAS from various quarters, including International Air Transport Association (IATA). The draft regulation deals with a variety of issues and tries to address concerns. According to the draft, UAS pose problems to the regulator in terms of ensuring safety of other users of airspace and persons on the ground. Regulations are needed in view of technological advancements in UAS over the years and their increased civil applications.

The draft makes it clear that no foreigner or foreign company can operate UAS in India. One needs to obtain a Unique Identification Number and Unmanned Aircraft Operator Permit (UAOP). It also prohibits international operations of civil UAS and over water. The UA shall not be flown over the entire air space over the territory of Delhi (30km radius from Rashtrapati Bhavan) and areas falling within 50 km from the international borders besides sensitive locations. It also talks about not allowing dropping of articles “unless specially cleared and mentioned in the UAOP”, which could help e-com companies like Amazon to launch drone delivery.

One may not be able to do away with use of UAS in the coming days but it gives a lot of room for concerns – from safety to security to privacy concerns. IATA has already raised concern over the aircraft safety. It was the first to flag caution soon after DGCA released the draft, saying drones are a threat in every airspace and they are not aware of any particular issue that distinguishes India from other countries. In every possible international fora, IATA raised the concern in the past though it acknowledged the growing industry and its benefits. The most important concern raised is that of how the use of UAVs could affect the airspace. Some sections fear that it creates potential threat to manned aircraft. They say monitoring may not be an easy way. It could become a drag on the efficiency of airways and a safety threat to commercial aviation, they fear.

Among the security concerns, it is highlighted that miscreants could hack into the UAVs with the intent of harming. With terrorists looking for new avenues, concerns are there that they would use cyber experts to target UAVs. Espionage by private parties could be another area of concern. Concerns are also there about intrusive surveillance besides accidents due to battery discharge of UAS.

Any new regulation could not avoid citizen’s right to privacy. An argument against civilian use of UAS is that it could be used for collecting personal information. It is a question how authorities can ensure that there is no unauthorised data collection. Drone photography could be another problematic issue. Though unrelated to the publication of draft regulation, Congress MP Rajeev Satav has tabled a Private Members’ Bill in Lok Sabha on April 29 seeking to ensure that there is no violation of privacy due to photography using new technology, including using drones. The bill aims to prevent “adverse photography with a view to ensure that advancement in photography and drone technology does not lead violation of privacy of individuals or servicemen on the line of duty or pose threat to the places of national or strategic importance”.

Though there are concerns, one cannot do away with UAS in the coming days but in a controlled manner. Technology could be useful in damage assessment of property and life in areas affected with calamities, critical infrastructure monitoring including power facilities, ports, and pipelines, commercial photography and aerial mapping. There are also increasingly proliferating into recreational field, the draft says.

The industry is upbeat about the DGCA move but one should not expect that the rules will be enforced very soon as there are still some outstanding issues. The Ministries of Home and Defence are yet to reach a consensus on who will take action against intruding unmanned aerial vehicles. There needs to be a lot of clarity on the rules and people need to know about it. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) of the United States, which last year came up with UAS regulations, has launched a campaign ‘Know Before You Fly’ along with the industry to educate people about use of drones. Only in the past one year, several incidents of unauthorised use of drones were reported. Two youths working for an online real estate firm flew drones to photograph certain localities for their business but landed in police net in one of the incidents. To ensure that no such incident takes place, India also needs to initiate some campaign before opening up the skies to unmanned aerial vehicles. The DGCA also needs to allay the concerns and ensure that a foolproof and unambiguous regulation is in place.

(An edited version appeared in Deccan Herald’s Panorama page on May 10, 2016)

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