The word ‘drone’ refers primarily to unmanned aircrafts or ships guided by remote control or onboard computers. All over the world, drones are synonymous with military aircraft, the kind which recently killed Qasem Soleimani, an Iranian major general of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and commander of its Quds Force, a division responsible for extraterritorial military and clandestine operations. In the wake of this attack, as well as another on Saudi Arabian oil refineries that impacted nearly half of their country’s global crude supply, India is likely to tighten its own drone regulations. 

India first used military drones during the 1999 Kargil war with Pakistan where Israel supplied India with IAI Heron and Searcher drones for reconnaissance. Since then India has procured numerous Israeli military unmanned aircraft.

India’s Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) has also developed its own domestic Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) or Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) program. The project aims to develop a domestic arsenal to replace and augment the existing fleet of unmanned vehicles. Examples of these are:

•    DRDO Lakshya: This is a target drone used for discreet aerial reconnaissance and target acquisition. It is launched by a solid propellant rocket motor and sustained by a turbojet engine in flight.

•    DRDO Nishant: Primarily designed for intelligence-gathering over enemy territory, it is also used for reconnaissance, training, surveillance, target designation, artillery fire correction, and damage assessment. The Nishant has completed its developmental phase and user trials.

•    DRDO Rustom: Modeled after the American Predator UAV, the Rustom is a Medium-Altitude Long-Endurance (MALE) system. Like the Predator, the Rustom is designed to be used for both reconnaissance and combat missions. It is still in prototype stage and is expected to replace and supplement Israeli Heron model UAVs in the Indian Air Force.

In India the usage of all aerial vehicles, manned or unmanned, are governed by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) and foreigners are currently not allowed to fly drones in India.

To understand how and why the perceptions about drones are changing, let us look at the history of drones and see how they their implementation has grown increasingly diversified. 

The very first attempts to devise a contraption that could fly on its own were reported in 1849, when Austrians attacked the city of Venice with balloons laden with explosives. The first pilotless aircrafts were designed towards the end of the World War I by the US Army. These vehicles called ‘Kettering Bugs’ were meant to fly as aerial torpedoes using gyroscopic controls to bombard further across enemy lines. Later, during the 1930s, the United States and England, both independently developed the world’s first radio-controlled aircraft. It laid the foundation for the military drone programs as we know them today. The development and usage of such drones continued to be predominantly for warfare by the military until the end of the twentieth century when flying remote controlled aircrafts substantially grew as a hobby. One would attribute this to the lowering costs of production and the increasing usability of maturing technology. Likewise, other non-military commercial applications of unmanned aerial vehicles were also explored by different governments and corporations.

In a recent report, FICCI and EY projected that the value of the Indian UAV industry and market would be around US$ 885.7 million, while the global market size will touch US$ 21.47 billion by 2021.

Recent developments regarding drones in India
The widening possibilities for which UAVs can be used thanks to their flexible and rapidly evolving software and hardware, has led to their employment in a variety of fields. Some examples are:
•    A specialized force constituted “for the purpose of specialist response to a threatening disaster situation or disaster” has been using UAS for locating victims of natural disasters.

•    Indian Railways is using UAS for inspection and 3D mapping to bring to life its vision of a dedicated freight corridor with a network of 3,360 km. The entire corridor will be mapped using UAS technology.

•    In November 2019, Coal India used drones to check illegal mining and pilferage, a system which it had already tested in a pilot project.

•    An autonomous agency of the Government of India, responsible for management of a network of National Highways has employed the use of drones for 3D digital mapping for Detailed Project Report (DPR) for road widening of the Raebareli – Allahabad Highway.

Though both the industry and the market in India are at a very nascent stage, there is an immense potential for growth in both. According to 6Wresearch, UAV market in India is projected to grow at a CAGR of 18% during the period from 2017 to 2023.

Recently, the Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) has issued draft guidelines on UAS through a circular titled “Requirements for Operation of Civil Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS).” This policy proposes that for operations at or above 200ft above ground level (AGL) in an uncontrolled airspace, the Unmanned Air Operator shall be required to file a flight plan and obtain necessary clearances with the concerned Air Traffic Services (ATS) unit. However, many applications such as those in power and utilities require greater room for mobility; many transmission towers have a height of up to 350 feet. Therefore, it is felt within the industry that a limit of 400 feet AGL is a more practical threshold than the current 200 feet level.

Another issue that must be addressed within the industry is that of bringing it in line with the national policy to promote the ease of doing business. Currently, the mechanism of a single window has not been implemented and users are required to approach multiple government agencies such as the Wireless Planning & Coordination Wing, the Ministry of Home Affairs, local police units and ATS providers to take approvals and get clearances.

Building an ecosystem
The UAV ecosystem within India is currently host to only a handful of companies that are manufacturing and catering to the consumers. These companies are also concerned about the ongoing discussions on UAS regulations and the fact that they may not be able to meet the market demands.

Furthermore, while drones have many possible functionalities, these companies have not yet fully explored their scope across industries, leveraging emerging technologies like AI, AR/VR, IoT and 3D modelling, which therefore, means that there is a lot of room for innovation and development as tastes and preferences change and get more refined.

In addition to creating an ecosystem that consists of equipment and technology providers, there is also the simultaneous need to fund training institutes and educational courses to upskill existing human resource and instruct them how to operate these UAVs.

The usage of UAVs is only going to increase as the technology itself gets more advanced as well as accessible to the average consumer. Today, drones are already employed by those who can afford them to blog, vlog and create documents, both for personal and business use. In the current scenario, governments and large private companies like Amazon are exploring the possibilities drones offer in terms of recon, surveying, deliveries and so forth. Should regulations allow the nascent Indian industry, it may well grow rapidly and become vital components of fields such as transport, security, mapping and numerous other productive purposes.

This blog has been authored by Kartikeya Saigal.

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