Keywords: DGCA – Drone Rules 2021 – Legality of Drones – UAV – UIN
While the widespread usage of drones seems to be a relatively new phenomenon, the technology itself has been in existence for quite a while. Previously, the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (flying objects that are now broadly classified as drones) used to be almost exclusively used for military or combat purposes. Unmanned vehicles are very advantageous in the sense that they are able to gather important data, often from beyond the enemy lines, without any harm or casualty to the people. Without there being a human pilot or crew on board, the drones usually use various sensors and detectors to ensure that they can fly unobstructed and can capture the necessary images or footage. However, the operation of the same is usually dependent upon a human operator.
With the advent of the twenty first century and the evolution of drones as a better, efficient, and accessible piece of technology, their user base is no longer limited to the government. Now, private individuals and organizations also use drones for a number of commercial and non-commercial purposes. However, in most nations, including India, the legal regime related to such vehicles is still in its nascent stage. This is an area that requires urgent attention, because in absence of dedicated laws and policies, drones would usually be governed by general aviation law – which are stricter in nature, as those laws were framed keeping in mind large aircrafts. Without a legal regime that neutralizes the elements of misuse from drone usage while ensuring that they can be utilized to their full efficiency, a nation is bound to miss out on the several ground breaking benefits that drone usage offers. The potential areas for drone usage range from delivering help in remote or disaster ridden areas, helping in agriculture, monitoring and surveillance, art forms such as photography, and many more.
Drones – How Does the Indian Law Define Them?
The first legal framework in India that directly dealt with the UAVs or drones, was the Unmanned Aircraft System Rules of 2021. These rules categorised all kinds of unmanned airborne vehicles into three categories – aeroplane, rotorcraft, and hybrid unmanned aircraft system, with most modern drones falling under the last category. This category has been further sub-divided into three categories – remotely piloted, model remotely piloted, and autonomous unmanned aircraft systems. Moreover, by weight, these unmanned aircrafts are further divided into three categories – nano (weight of less than or equal to 250 grams), micro and small (250 grams to 2 kg and 2 kg to 25 kg respectively), and medium and large (25 to 150 kg and more than 150 kg respectively).
The next set of rules on the above-stated issue is the Drone Rules of 2021. Rule 3(i) provides the definition of drone and states that “Drone means an unmanned aircraft system”. Definition of ‘unmanned aircraft system’ has also been provided in the Rules. Rule 3(zb) provides that it is “an aircraft that can operate autonomously or can be operated remotely without a pilot on board”. Categorisation similar to that provided in the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Rules is provided in Drone Rules as well, with there being three kinds of aircraft systems, and further categorisation into three categories based on the piloting mechanism of the same. However, Rule 5 of the said Rules provides a much more detailed categorisation of the aircraft systems based on weight, with the five categories being nano, micro, small, medium, and large systems. The weight limits for every category remains the same as before. In 2022, the Drone (Amendment) Rules came into force, though it makes no change in the definition and description of what kind of vehicles would be considered as drones.
Other than the aforementioned rules that govern the usage of drones in India, there are several regulations and requirements that operate on the registration, licensing, and operation of drones – particularly by private individuals. In this matter, the primary authority is the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), which formulates, revises, and notifies such requirements from time to time.
Regulations on Flight
Once it has been classified as to which flying objects would be considered as drones, the current legal regime then provides a comprehensive guideline on how and under what circumstances they may be flown. To begin with, a type certificate is required to be issued for every UAV or drone. Type certificate may be obtained by utilizing the digital sky platform. Once a proposal has been made under the same, it will be examined by the Quality Council of India, and submitted before the Director General within the time period of sixty days from when the application was made. If satisfied, the Director General may then issue a type certificate for the particular aircraft, which should be done within fifteen days from submission of the report. This type certificate requirement is exempted only for two categories of UAVs –model and nano.
Irrespective of the nature of the aircraft in question, a registration of the Vehicle or drone must be made on the digital sky platform, without which, it cannot be flown legally. The platform will provide each vehicle with a unique identification number. This application would also be made via the digital sky platform, which would ensure verification of details and issuance of Unique Identification Number (UIN) to the ultimate user. This UIN would be connected with the serial number provided by the manufacturer, which would be controlling the flight control module and remote pilot station. This also mandates that the flight control module and remote pilot station cannot be changed without making the necessary changes through the digital sky platform first. Moreover, a person who had an existing unmanned aircraft system during the enactment of these rules, would have till 31st December, 2021, to register their vehicle. Provisions for transferring the ownership and details of a UAV and deregistering a lost or damaged UAV is provided in the Rules as well.
Rule 12 of the Rules also provides that some safety features for the drones may be mandated by the government at any point of time. This would include aspects such as ‘no permission – no take-off’ for the hardware and firmware of the individual. The vehicles may also be equipped with real-time tracking beacons, which would relate its UIN with various aspects such as location, altitude, and space. Another possible safety feature would include the capacity to geo-fence.
While these are the requirements that one must comply with while initially acquiring a drone and making it ready to fly, the operation of drones in itself is highly regulated under the Indian regime. To begin with, it calls for an airspace map, which would divide the country into red, yellow, and green zones. In the red and yellow zones, a drone may be operated only with prior permission. However, the green zones are exempted from such requirements. The zoning mechanism is dynamic and the status of a zone may be changed as per requirement, therefore, ensuring that a one-size-fits-all approach is not adopted for earmarking the zones. While operating such vehicles, the Rules also mandate that products such as arms, ammunitions, explosives, dangerous goods, etc., cannot be carried or sent via a drone, to ensure safety and security for all the people.
To fly a drone itself, a user would need to acquire a valid remote pilot license, obtained from the digital sky platform, without which it would be illegal to operate a drone – even for a very short duration. Any person who is between the ages of eighteen to sixty-five and is educated at least till class X, would be eligible to apply for the remote pilot license. The license is valid for a ten-year period, after which it must be renewed. However, the users who are operating a nano UAV or a micro-UAV for non-commercial purposes, would not be required to obtain the license.
Room for Improvement
In view of the foregoing discussion, it may be said that while India’s legal regime related to drone usage is still evolving, it has got a good start. While a number of licenses and permits are required to own, fly, and use a drone, the process is highly streamlined, with the digital sky platform being utilized for everything. However, the primary gap area, which has the potential to cause serious security threats in the future as well, is the exemption that is being provided to the nano, and to some extent, micro aircrafts.
The general idea behind exempting them from registration and remote pilot licensing is that these would ordinarily be recreational vehicles, and mandating a strict licensing procedure on them would significantly hamper trade and usage of such devices. However, the problem lies in the fact that the categorization is done based solely on weight, and other technological factors are not taken into account. With the advent of artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies, it would not be a strenuous task to equip a nano or micro drone with the equipment to cause serious threat to the safety, security, and privacy of the people of India. Thus, the categorization system which forms the basis of the licensing procedure of drones and exemption from the same, requires a serious overhaul to mitigate these potential concerns in an urgent manner.
* Junior Research Fellow, The WB National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata.