The drones are here to stay. Adoption of drones is increasing at a staggering rate in industries such as mining and construction. In other industries such as logistics and agriculture, drones are starting to make inroads as well. Police and security forces were early adopters of drones and they are doubling down on them as well. On top of that, courtesy of the Chinese giant DJI, professional-grade drones are available in supermarkets at affordable prices. Drones are already delivering crucial medical supplies in Africa. The trials for payload delivery are going on in the USA, Europe, Japan and Australia. Given the benefits that drones provide, there is going to be no going back.
As more and more drones take to the skies, we are seeing whole new concerns cropping up with respect to public spaces and sensitive installations. The now-famous Gatwick airport shutdowns indicate helplessness when it comes to tackling rogue drones. The challenges with drones are due to a few factors coming together.
Drones are easy to make and buy. Any hobbyist with 100$ in hand can get the required components and assemble them by seeing tutorials on Youtube. DJI Spark drones can be purchased from Amazon for as little as 500$. Cheaper generic versions are also available in plenty of online and offline shops.
Drones are difficult to detect. The smallest drones are the size of a small bird. They are difficult to detect visually without any aids from a few hundred metres away even in the daytime. In the night time, there is little chance of noticing one visually. Their noise signature is also low enough to be undetectable from a distance. Current state-of-the-art solutions involve placing arrays of sophisticated antennas around a facility with deployment costs running into millions of dollars.
Drones are difficult to stop. Traditional approaches of preventing trespassing, such as erecting walls, fences, barriers etc. are ineffective in the case of drones. There are no solutions to prevent drones from entering an open-air facility.
Drones are difficult to take down. Today, there exists no easy solution to take down a rogue drone or force it to land even if one is detected. People have tried lasers, jammers, guns, anti-drone drones and even eagles. But all these solutions are only effective in some particular environment, some particular situation or against some particular threat. For example, lasers and jammers are ineffective against far-away fast-moving drones. Guns cannot be used in dense public spaces or near airports. The simplest approach the authorities have taken in many incidents is to wait for the drone to go away. This has worked because most off-the-shelf drones have a flight time of around 30 minutes. But this will not be the case in the future as battery capacity increases.
Locating the Pilot
It is difficult to locate the pilot of the drones. Since drones are operated through wireless remote control, sometimes from a few km away, it is not easy to determine where the drone is being controlled from.
Automated flight is already the default. Most off-the-shelf drones are equipped with software for automated flight. Ardupilot, one of the most popular open-source software in the UAV community, allows any hobbyist to build a drone with the ability to undertake automated flights.
This is unchartered territory for authorities across the world and they have responded with their weapon of choice: regulations. There are many common elements in the initial versions of the introduced regulations, such as:
Geo-fencing: Pilots should be aware of sensitive areas and not fly their drones in such areas
Altitude Restrictions: Pilots should not fly the drones above the restricted altitude
Weight Restrictions: The drone’s maximum take-off weight should be within permissible limits
VLoS Restrictions: Pilots should maintain the drone in their Visual Line-of-Sight at all times
Flight over people: Pilots should not fly the drone above people or densely populated areas
These regulations mostly depend on self-enforceability. If any particular pilot is not willing to adhere to these, there is little that security agencies can do to prevent him from flying rogue. This has been the fundamental cause of incidents like the Gatwick Airport shutdown.
India’s Approach – NPNT
India’s security forces are constantly in a state of a high level of alertness due to a number of internal and external threats. Therefore self-enforceability was not sufficient and a more robust solution was needed. Thus was born the concept of No-Permission No-Takeoff (NPNT). The critical differentiating elements of NPNT are two-fold:
Every drone above 250g needs to take permission from the government before taking off. The nodal body for aviation in India, the DGCA, has set up a web portal for this purpose. The portal, called Digital Sky, is meant to facilitate automated granting of permissions for drone flights. These permissions are allotted with respect to a particular pilot and drone for a particular area, date and time.
The permissions are required to be enforced on a firmware-level within the drone. The objective is to improve the security by making the permission enforcement independent of the pilot. Enforcing the permissions only on the Ground Control Station will not be considered sufficient. This also implies direct liability of the manufacturer in case the drone does not adhere to the given permissions.
Both of these are radical ideas. This is reportedly the first-case in which the government is involved for private usage of a consumer device. The feasibility of enacting this lies on the Digital Sky platform and the level of government’s stringency with the permissions. If the permissions are too stringent, there is a risk of choking the industry.
This is also a rare case of the operational liability being shared between the device manufacturer and the operator. This will have far-reaching implications on the business models of manufacturers. It will take some time for the industry to adjust to this new paradigm.
No Easy Answers
There are no easy answers as to what the end solution will look like. Most probably we will see many revisions to the existing regulations before they start to solidify. But now that the momentum is clearly with getting more drones up in the air, the hope is that the authorities will be more willing to find a solution.