Explainer: National security concerns dominate Draft Drone Rules 2021

Drones have tremendous potential for important applications in areas like mapping, agriculture, logistics, healthcare and others. Here's what the Draft Drone Rules 2021 say about their use.

Within weeks of the terror attack on a Jammu air force base using drones, the Ministry of Civil Aviation, on July 15th, released a new set of Draft Drone Rules, 2021. While inviting public comments on the draft rules, the ministry said that the new rules are built on a premise of trust, self-certification and non-intrusive monitoring and will replace the existing Unmanned Aircraft Existing Rules, 2021, which had been released in March 2021.

The ministry has been working towards developing a world class drone ecosystem in India. But formulating the rules took time as drone technologies have constantly been evolving. Given that there is at present no International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) standards on the construction and use of drones, the ministry had to start from scratch in drafting the latest set of rules.

Obviously, strengthening national security has been one of the main considerations in drafting the new rules which specify extra precautions to regulate the use of drones. However, the ministry emphasises that the new rules will provide minimal human interface with the use of a newly designed digital sky platform, and permissions will be self-generated. But safety measures like geo-fencing (the use of the Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite network and/or local radio-frequency identifiers such as Wi-Fi nodes or Bluetooth beacons to create virtual boundaries around a location, real-time tracking beacon and No permission-No take off (NPNT) will be notified in future.

Defining a drone

In layman terminology, drones are unmanned flying machines that can be remotely controlled or fly autonomously through software-controlled flight plans in their embedded systems. Section 2(h) of the new Draft Rules defines drones as an aircraft without a pilot on board that can operate autonomously or can be operated remotely.

Read more: Novel way to beat novel coronavirus: Chennai uses university-developed drones for disinfection

No doubt the recent terror attacks in Jammu have increased security concerns over unregulated usage of drones. But drones also promise tremendous potential to provide wide-ranging applications in areas like photography, mapping, agriculture, logistics, health care systems and infrastructure asset maintenance, to name a few. They range in size from very small to large ones that can carry multiple kilograms of payload. 

Key Features of the Draft Drone Rules

  • Digital Sky Platform. Making compliance with rules an all-digital process, this online platform will be hosted by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation for various activities related to the management of drone activities in India. It shall be developed as a business friendly, single window online system.

  • Classification of drones. Based upon the maximum weight including payload
    • Nano drone: Less than or equal to 250 grams.
    • Micro drone: Greater than 250 gram and less than or equal to 2 kilograms.
    • Small drone: Greater than 2 kilogram and less than or equal to 25 kilograms.
    • Medium drone: Greater than 25 kilogram and less than or equal to 150 kilograms.
    • Large drone:Greater than 150 kilograms.

Approvals: No approvals are required to fly a drone unless there is a significant departure from prescribed procedures. The set of forms required to be filed to get a permit to use drones has been reduced from 25 to six and the required fees have also been reduced.

To prevent unauthorized flights and to ensure public safety, any drone without a digital permit to fly will simply not be able to take off. The unmanned traffic management system operates as a traffic regulator in the drone airspace and coordinates closely with defence and civilian air traffic controllers (ATCs) to ensure that drones remain on the approved flight paths.

Drone flying over and capturing the exact location of an illegal manufacturing unit.
File pic of a drone helping to capture the exact location of an illegal hooch manufacturing unit. Pic courtesy: Yeoor Environmental Society
  • Airspace map. An interactive airspace map segregates airspace intogreen, yellow and red zones.
  • Red Zones. The airspace of defined dimensions, above the land areas or territorial waters of India, or any installation or notified port limits specified by the Central Government beyond the territorial waters of India. Drone operations in such red zones shall be permitted only under exceptional circumstances.
  • Yellow Zone. The controlled airspace of defined dimensions above the land areas or territorial waters of India within which drone operations are restricted and shall require permission from the concerned air traffic control authority. It has been reduced from 45 km to 12 km from any airport perimeter.
  • Pilot License: No pilot licence required for micro and nano drones for non-commercial use and for R&D organisations.
  • Drone Corridor. The ministry will also facilitate development of drone corridors for cargo deliveries and a drone promotion council will be set up to facilitate a business-friendly regulatory regime. A framework for developing corridors shall be included in the policy framework on Drone Traffic Management, which shall be published by the Centre.
  • Certificate of Airworthiness. For drones upto 500 kg total weight, issuance of such certificates will be the responsibility of the Quality Council of India and certification entities authorized by it.
  • A Unique Identification Number for each drone can be generated by manufacturer on the digital sky platform through the self-certification route. The platform makes it easier to transfer and deregistration of drones.
  • A person who has contravened or failed to comply with these rules shall be punishable by the Court in accordance with the provisions of the Aircraft Act, 1934.
  • Maximum penalty for violations, under Drone Rules 2021, reduced to Rs 1 lakh.  This shall, however, not apply to penalties in respect of violation of other laws.
  • All State Governments, Union Territory Administrations and law enforcement agencies shall be provided direct access to the data available on the digital sky platform.

The objectives of the Draft Drone Rules 2021

The new Rules try to address the points raised by stakeholders on the earlier rules, while also addressing security issues. The Rules attempt to lay the foundation for the operation of drone taxis, dedicated corridors for cargo deliveries and improved airspace map. The formulation of these Rules was challenging as the Unmanned Aircraft System had to be integrated with the National Airspace System. Further, they aim to ease ownership and use of drones by industries and boost technology development by entrepreneurs and start-ups.

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