Even though India’s new drone policy will not come into effect till 1 December 2018, it is already being called unnecessarily rigorous and sweeping. By requiring drones weighing more than 250 grams to be registered, it has ensured that all but the most rudimentary toy drones will be covered by its provisions. This is being seen by many as unnecessarily expansive.
Regulations must always strike the balance between protecting against harm and ensuring that compliance with its provisions does not make the regulated operation infeasible. In the context of drones, the primary concern is the damage that could be caused if the drone were to fall out of the sky or collide with a building mid-flight. Additionally, because these remotely piloted devices could be used to violate personal privacy, commit trespass or perpetrate criminal acts, there is a need to constrain their use. The objective of drone regulations must be to prevent these outcomes from occurring. However, the challenge before a lawmaker is to achieve the objective without making the regulations so burdensome that they shackle the industry they are supposed to supervise.
The draft law attempts to achieve this by incorporating a number of technological restrictions into the drones themselves. All regulated drones are now required to be equipped with global navigation satellite system and return-to-home technologies so that they are geographically constrained. They must have anti-collision lights, ID-plates and flight controllers with flight data logging capabilities. Operators are only permitted to fly during the day and to ensure that their drones remain within visual line of sight, which means we are unlikely to see aerial light shows of choreographed drone swarms in India anytime soon.
However, the most interesting technological requirement lies at the heart of the regulation. Under the new law, all drones must have no-permission-no-takeoff (NPNT) technology built into their hardware. Drone operators will have to inform the regulator before take off about when and where they intend to fly by filing a flight plan. Flight approvals will be issued electronically so that they directly talk to the NPNT module in the drone. Registered drones will not even be able to arm themselves unless their flight plan has been approved.
This will allow the regulator to maintain an accurate record of which drones are being flown where so that in the event of a complaint they can quickly zero in on likely suspects. Once they have narrowed the field, they will be able to call for flight data logs from each of the shortlisted drones to identify which among them was the perpetrator. In the future, it will allow regulators to interact in real time with active drones to clear the path in an emergency or re-designate a zone as restricted on the fly.
As sensible as all this might appear on paper, it sounds like it will, in practice, be a regulation from hell. I can think of nothing more certainly designed to bring the drone industry to its knees than requiring hobbyists to obtain permission from curmudgeonly civil servants every time they want to take their drones for a spin. If this approach is to have any chance of working, the process of approving the flight plan needs to be completely frictionless.
To address this, the new regulations propose to implement digital sky—an automated flight plan registration and approval platform intended to make it easy to request and obtain approval to fly. Drone operators will have to file their flight plans on an online portal indicating where they intend to fly their drones and for what duration. In unrestricted areas, approval will be granted automatically and communicated electronically to the NPNT module so that the drone remains armed to fly in the approved area for the duration requested. As a result, the platform eliminates the need to interface with a human being, allowing drones to be flown freely while at the same time maintaining a record of all active drones in Indian airspace.
This approach could usher in a new age of technology-enabled governance. Activities that require monitoring to prevent misuse could implement a digital online platform to log all instances in which the technology is being used. So long as the process is frictionless and automated, it should make little difference to proliferation of the technology if approval has to be obtained before each use. On the other hand, the resulting record of utilization can serve as a log that could address many of the concerns the regulator has.
There are many other applications for this approach. For instance, when driverless cars go mainstream they will likely operate in dedicated lanes separate from those in which human-operated cars ply. If we can have them file their proposed destination into something similar to the digital sky platform, we can build automated traffic management systems that will plot the ideal route that gets them to their destination. This means that we will no longer need to make the kinds of investments we are currently making in light detection and ranging and other collision detection technologies for them to navigate safely. Automated route planning using a digital platform will improve safety while ensuring traceability.
What remains to be implemented are appropriate safeguards to ensure that in the process we do not impinge on personal privacy. As always, we will probably leave that for later.
Rahul Matthan is a partner at Trilegal and author of Privacy 3.0: Unlocking Our Data Drive Future. Ex Machina is a column on technology, law and everything in between. His Twitter handle is @matthan.