Free the Skies

The March 2021 Unmanned Aircraft Rules have imposed such a heavy compliance burden on drones that any hope of a drone renaissance has become vanishingly slim. Unless the government liberalises these restrictions it will have a chilling effect on the drone industry at a time when it should be having its iPhone moment.

This article was first published in The Mint. You can read the original at this link.

Most of us think of drones in a purely recreational context. We see them as user-friendly gadgets with which amateurs can shoot Spielberg-esque aerial footage and which can be raced over dizzyingly-challenging courses using first-person-view headsets.

But drones have a utility far beyond the recreational.

A while ago, I wrote about how drones are being used in Rwanda to transport blood to remote field hospitals:

A California start-up called Zipline has come up with an ingenious solution to this problem. They have developed a drone delivery service that completely bypasses the road network, delivering blood to remote hospitals in the western half of the country using fixed-wing autonomous aircraft launched from a central hub. Zipline will eventually make 150 deliveries a day to 21 medical stations using 15 specially designed drones.

As compelling as that use case was, I believe that we will soon see many other such applications—from e-commerce delivery to emergency response in natural disasters. I can see drones being used in agriculture to monitor crops, spray pesticide and carry out precision farming operations. Across a number of industries—telecom, oil exploration and mining, to name a few—we rely on humans to perform essential monitoring and maintenance activities under extremely hazardous conditions. I can see drones perform all these functions far more effectively and safely. When it comes to the government, I can think of many ways in which drones can improve efficiency. I can see them used for a number of municipal functions—conducting land surveys, enforcing zoning restrictions, etc, as well as in defence, where they can be used to patrol our borders far more effectively than human soldiers can.

Regulating Drones

The last time I wrote about drones was in October 2018. The Government of India had just announced an impressive new drone policy that was going to overcome the regulatory challenge of monitoring drones by incorporating within them a no-permission-no-take-off module that would be linked to a digital sky platform over-the-air and automatically approve their flight plans digitally. Even though the regulation imposed unnecessarily restrictive licence and registration requirements, I was hopeful for the paperless promise that Digital Sky held out:

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.

It has been two and a half years since that article was published, and I can see now that my early optimism was misplaced. As impressive as the concept of [[digital sky]] was, it remains, to this day, just that—an idea that is no closer to becoming a reality than it then was. Not only has there been no progress on creating an airspace map that was supposed to divide our skies into green and yellow zones in which drone flights were supposed to be permitted, and red zones in which they’re not, in March this year the government enacted a new set of regulations so draconian that any hope of a drone renaissance has become vanishingly slim.

According to Drone Federation India, which did an in-depth comparison of the two regulations, the compliance burden imposed by the Unmanned Aircraft Rules 2021 is, if possible, even more onerous than that set out in the 2018 regime that I had disparaged. Under the 2018 framework, no approvals were required for research and development. The 2021 Rules, on the other hand, require researchers to obtain as many as 10 permissions in order to be able to use drones. Similarly, the number of approvals needed to manufacture and import drones has increased, as have permissions required for drone operations. In addition, the new regulations impose fines so steep that, with compounding, they can be as high as ₹1.5 crore, which would ring a certain death knell for drone startups.

The government of India has, over the past six months, demonstrated a tremendous appetite for aggressive regulatory reform in the tech sector. It implemented an overhaul of Other Service Provider regulations late last year and then decentralized the provision of internet service under the PM-WANI project. It followed this up with liberalization of the geospatial sector by completely deregulating digital maps. Why a government so clearly invested in breaking with its former anachronistic approach to tech regulation would enact drone regulations as retrograde as this is beyond me.

Is it possible that we don’t fully appreciate the potential of this sector?

Drones are having an iPhone Moment

Before smartphones, no one could have predicted that having always-on, sensor-packed devices in our pockets would give rise to the gig economy and facilitate our steady transition towards a cashless society. Or that we would witness such a radical democratization of content creation that kids armed with a phone and a little bit of attitude would command audiences in the millions. As much as we might believe we can predict the impact that new technologies will have on society, history has shown that our imagination tends to be limited.

Drones today are what smartphones were in 2007. As much as we might try to foresee the ways in which drones will be used once the regulatory shackles are lifted, I have no doubt that when we look back on this moment 10 years from now, we will realise our expectations fell far short of what would, by then, have come to pass.

Free the Skies

If we are to make this future a reality, what is needed is a radical liberalization of the country’s drone regulations. If operators need to be mindful of where they fly their drones let us make it easy for them by giving them interactive digital maps that provide both the regulator and the regulated clarity as to what is permitted and what is not. Many other countries already do that.

Restrict, if you will, drone operations over airports and any other place where they could interfere with aircraft movement — but permit it everywhere else. If drones have to be registered, let it be through a simple, automated process that is accessible through an online portal and which is as easy as uploading a drone chassis number and receiving a one-time password.

We have, yet again, an opportunity to leapfrog into the future. Let regulation not hold us back.