New Delhi: It has been almost a year since civil aviation regulator Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DCGA) announced that flying drones, also referred to as unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs, for personal and commercial purposes won’t be illegal in India from December 2018. The regulator also announced an online platform called Digital Sky, to regulate all drones in the micro (above 250g and flying over an altitude of 50 feet) and higher categories.

In January 2019, a whitepaper on drone policy 2.0 was presented by the minister for civil aviation Jayant Sinha, paving the way for wider application of drones such as delivery of goods beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS). This was hailed as a major turning point for the drone market in India. Yet, it is still not clear as to when we are going to see the sky actually buzzing with drones.

The reason: After the May circular by DGCA, which invited companies to participate in sandboxes for Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) and test out their drones, the regulator has, as per an ET report, asked the seven shortlisted companies—Zomato, Swiggy,Tata Advanced Systems, Honeywell, Zipline, Dunzo and Redwing to provide additional technical details regarding their BVLOS application. DGCA received 34 applications until July but rejected 27 of them due to incomplete information.

The sandboxes for the conducting drone experiments will last six months, and is likely to be followed by several rounds of consultations. This implies that we may not see drones delivering food or goods until the end of next year.

“After BVLOS permissions are granted to the 7 companies, they will most likely spend another few months working out the formal BVLOS circular for the rest of the companies. So I don't think it would be until the end of next year that we would have a formal specification of something that is drone policy 2.0," says Karan Kamdar, CEO of 1 Martian Way Corporation, a Mumbai based start-up that makes embedded AI products for drones and robots.

Some of the key elements introduced under Drone Policy 1.0, like Digital Sky, have not been completed yet. Kamdar points out, many of the hardware manufactures still don’t have clear idea of how to embed software and make it compatible with Digital Sky.

“Right now they are still getting the fundamental pieces of first drone policy 1.0 ready. They are still getting the compliant drone manufacturers listed on the Digital Sky. The backend of the Digital Sky which will segment the air spaces is also being built as we speak," said Gokul Kumaravelu, Marketing Lead, at Bangalore based drone solutions company Skylark Drones.

Drone policy 2.0 envisages setting up an automatic air traffic management system which will have control over the drone and can bring it down if it detects any violation of the flight plan. It will also set up a drone directorate to issues guidelines for drone use and assigns a life cycle for every category and type of drones. Kumaravelu rues, “the nature of what the government has asked is extremely unique. So it's not just asking if you have a drone that can fly beyond the visual line of sight. They also need to integrate it with an existing sort of air space management system and understand the other safety cases around it. You also need a bunch of things like domain expertise in BVLOS operations. And finally you need to bring out the business use case of the drone applications."

Unlike other countries, India has a very stringent drone policy. It mandates drone users to register drones, requires pilots to get a pilot licence followed by an operator permit. Before flying drones, operators have to define a flight plan and then wait for a permission under NPNT (no permission no takeoff). Kamdar, doubts the efficacy of NPNT and feels it comes with a lot of unnecessary things, like pre-checking and condition checking on drones, and then logging errors on crashes and sending reports. He adds, “eventually all this data will be logged on to some government server, which officials may not even be interested in looking at until something untoward like a terror attack is carried out using drones."