The new Indian drone regulations, titled UAS Rules 2021, came into effect on 12th March 2021. Along with these regulations came skepticism and criticism from the Indian drone industry. With penalties up to Rs. 5,00,000 for defaulters to several lengthy approvals and unfinished infrastructure. Flying a drone in India may not be as simple as it sounds. Let us look at how these rules affect Indian drone pilots:
What are the UAS Rules?
The UAS (Unmanned Aircraft System) Rules were drafted in June 2020. The draft was then released to the public for comments. On March 12th, 2021, the draft was finalized and brought into effect. To legally fly a drone in India, drone pilots must adhere to this set of rules. This means having a valid Student Pilot License, Remote Pilot License, UAOP, an NPNT-compliant UAV, etc. Read about the regulations in detail here.
Obtaining a Remote Pilot License
Under the new regulations, to obtain a Remote Pilot License the applicant first needs to hold a valid Student Pilot License. A Student Pilot License can be obtained from an authorized drone pilot training institute. This is the first hurdle for remote pilots. Currently, there are a limited number of authorized training institutes available in India. Additionally, among those training institutes, only a handful of them have authorized instructors and drone training modules defined. Another requirement mentioned in the regulations is that applicants must pass an oral examination as per the DGCA-specified syllabus to obtain a Student Pilot License.
Before one can apply for a Remote Pilot License (RPL), the applicant must present a Radio Operator’s Certificate along with the Student Pilot License. Additionally, the applicant must present a report of verification of character (background check) from the concerned government agency. Similar to a Student Pilot License, an applicant must pass a skill test and an examination as per the DGCA-specified syllabus to obtain a RPL. However, as of now there is no clearly defined syllabus issued by the DGCA.
Becoming an Operator and Purchasing a Drone
Becoming an Operator and purchasing an NPNT-compliant drone have their own set of challenges. The first step before purchasing a drone should be creating an Operator’s profile on Digital Sky. On the creation of the operator’s profile, the user will be given an Operator ID. Only those with an Operator ID can purchase a drone.
At present, there are around 21 NPNT-compliant drones available in India. Most of the NPNT-compliant drones are meant for industrial use. Thus, if an operator wants to purchase a cinematography drone or leisure drone, he/she is left with almost no options to choose from. Since the DGCA has banned non-NPNT compliant drones from being operated in Indian airspace, it is not possible to buy a DJI drone or fly one without having its hardware and software changed to fit the DGCA guidelines (more on that towards the end). Also, the drone being purchased must be registered and have a valid UIN (Unique Identification Number).
The next step after purchasing a registered NPNT-compliant drone is adding it to your Operator’s profile on Digital Sky. Once the drone is successfully added, the user must add an authorized Remote Pilot. Here, if the Operator is an authorized remote pilot, he/she can add their own remote pilot ID or the operator can add the remote pilot ID of another authorized remote pilot.
Getting a UAOP and a Creating Flight Plan
Another important step in flying a drone is getting a UAOP or Unmanned Aircraft Operator Permit. A UAOP is required for drones of the ‘Small’ class and above. To get a UAOP, the operator must first submit an SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) defined by the DGCA. On approval of the SOP, the operator can apply for a UAOP (Class 1 or 2).
Finally, operators must create a flight plan and get DGCA’s approval. Creating a flight plan consists of providing the information of the drone operation that will be conducted. Data like latitude, longitude, radius, altitude, purpose, duration, date, and time must be provided. Additionally, operators need to get approval for the airspace they would fly their drones. In India, the airspace is divided into three primary zones: Green, Yellow, and Red.
The Green Zone is the uncontrolled airspace, yellow is the controlled airspace, and red is the restricted airspace. Drone pilots are allowed to fly only in the green and yellow zones. Requests for permission for flying in either zone must be submitted a minimum of 24 hours before the flight. Once you receive the permission artifact, you must load it on the drone. Currently, there are only about 56 zones defined. Thus, the airspace a pilot may want to fly in may not be defined yet, and thus, he/she would have to apply for exemptions from the DGCA. On completion of all these steps, an operator is cleared to conduct a drone operation.
Nano drones are the only class of drones that are exempt from all requirements. To fly a Nano drone, a pilot does not require an RPL, UAOP, UIN, or pre-flight permission. The DGCA defines Nano drones as drones that weigh under 250g. Therefore the only DJI drones that can be flown in India are the DJI Mavic Mini, Mini 2, and the Tello. Nano drones do not require registration but these drones would have to be enlisted with the DGCA.
It is to be noted that any Nano drone is exempt from the NPNT (No Permission No Take Off) rules until:
- The drone is flown below 50ft (15m) in uncontrolled airspace
- Flown under visual line of sight (100 meters from the pilot)
- Flown under the speed of 15 m/s.
However, if the pilot wishes to fly their drone beyond these given parameters, then the requirements of the Micro class of drones would become applicable to that Nano drone.
What happens to non-NPNT compliant drones?
DGCA has described a provision for non-NPNT compliant drones in the UAS Rules 2021. Although the provision may not be entirely practical. To fly a non-NPNT compliant drone, like a DJI Mavic Pro, you must complete the following steps:
- Fill Form UA-1 (mentioned in the official publication) and obtain a Unique Authorization Number.
- Fill Form UA-11 for acceptance and declaration of the non-compliant drone.
- Enlist the drone, thereby obtain a Drone Acknowledgement Number (DAN) and Owner Acknowledgment Number (OAN)
- Approach a DGCA-authorized drone manufacturer and get your non-compliant drone modified (hardware and software) to become NPNT-compliant.
- Submit your compliant drone to testing laboratories to test for NPNT compliance.
- Once approved as NPNT-compliant, you can follow the application steps for an Operator and register your drone on Digital Sky.
- Add your own RPL or an authorised remote pilot ID, get a UAOP, create a flight plan, and if approved, fly your drone.
There are several problems with this approach. The DGCA has stated that non-compliant drones can be modified by authorized drone manufacturers. However, it is highly improbable that any authorized drone manufacturer would take apart a non-compliant drone and modify it for NPNT-compliance and then send that modified drone to testing labs and get it approved. Even if the manufacturer does carry out these steps, it would nearly be equal to the cost of the drone.
The second problem that you would face in this process is testing laboratories. Currently, there are just a few authorized testing laboratories. The absence of testing labs will make it near impossible to approve the drone’s air-worthiness. Not to mention, if the drone is modified it may lose its original functionality. Therefore, flying a non-compliant drone in India is not practical as of now.
Several clauses in the UAS Rules 2021 are ambiguous in their implementation. The process for obtaining an RPL is currently not feasible for all drone pilots. Additionally, the number of approvals needed to fly a drone has also increased. The cost of some permits can be expensive. For instance, getting a UAOP for a Small category drone costs Rs. 5,000 and Rs. 10,000 for a Medium class drone. Also, all drone operations will require drone insurance. If the price for drone insurance is added, flying a drone in India is not economically viable for a lot of drone pilots. The Indian drone regulations and infrastructure have a long way to go to become entirely drone friendly.