Home >Opinion >Views >Our liberalized policy on drones will serve us well

Barely four months after India released rules for the use of unmanned aircraft systems, our civil aviation ministry has unveiled its draft Drone Rules, 2021, to replace them. That the Centre undertook this rehaul was an admission of how poorly the old regulatory regime was framed. But any course correction requires courage, and the government deserves credit for the move. Indeed, the earlier rules were an over- kill that would have stifled drone usage and deprived the country of their myriad benefits. Not only were too many okays needed to make, import and operate drones, fines so steep were envisioned that they would have deterred startups from entering this field. With its revisions, however, the ministry has eased their way in, enabling a services market to take off that had hovered around in anticipation more than action for a long while.

Henceforth, pilot licences will not be a must for the operation of micro drones for non-commercial purposes, nano drones, and any kind deployed by research and development (R&D) organizations. Registered foreign-owned firms will face no special restriction on operating these. While their import will be regulated, no security clearance is needed for registration. The Centre has also dropped its insistence on certificates of drone airworthiness. Further, its digital sky platform will offer flight go-aheads digitally. These, among other moves to ease flying, reflect a recognition that drone operators need breathing space if these contraptions are to meet their promise. Drones can serve a wide range of uses across sectors, from farming and mining to e-commerce and vaccine drop-offs. It is far safer to have a drone monitor a hazardous site, for example, than expose humans to it. The experimental use of these hi-tech courier birds has been widely welcomed, especially for ferrying vital supplies to places that are hard to access. Their utility for state initiatives is also very high, be it in cartographic exercises or for farm surveys and police surveillance. It would serve our economy best, however, if they’re deployed mostly by private players as enhancers of efficiency, rather than by the state as its eyes, ears and arms. For that, our rules need to be as market-friendly as possible within the constraints of public security.

The threat that could be posed by drones buzzing around Indian airspace is significant. A vehicle that can air-lift a pizza to a family picnic can also bear lethal payloads. The recent drone attack on an air-force installation in Jammu brought this problem into sharp focus. The coordination mechanism of our digital sky platform is yet to be tested against heavy traffic. Once drones are common in our skies, the prevention of rogue flights would need a foolproof vigil. Spotting a suspicious flying object is one thing, though, and acting against it is another. On Saturday, home minister Amit Shah said that our Defence Research and Development Organization was among the agencies working on drone defence systems, to be deployed “very soon". It is perhaps a sign of technical confidence that our colour-coded map of flight zones has also been liberalized. While highly sensitive areas must stay barred to drones, we should not complicate matters for operators beyond what’s necessary. Yet, we should be ready to recalibrate our policy in response to new learnings and advancements. As it’s a new business, some turbulence is to be expected. But that must not weaken our resolve to see it thrive.

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