Representative image. Photograph:( Zee News Network )
The drone industry is new both to the world and India but the country needs to quickly seize its potential.
There was a time when the phrase “eye in the sky” meant a satellite. Orbiting a few thousand kilometres in the space, quietly connecting and watching us. Today those “eyes in the sky” could be just a few feet above your head. The buzz of a small drone over wedding parties is a familiar sound to many already. A wedding party without drone based photography is considered as lame today as a party without a dance floor a decade ago.
Drones come in several sizes and shapes with varying utility. They also have several names: Unmanned aircraft systems, remotely piloted aircraft system and unmanned aerial vehicles. These can fly at a few feet above your head to a few kilometres in the sky.
From weaponised aircraft, the important shift now has been towards the use of drones by civilians. The recent policy announcement by the Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) has laid down the law for usage of drones by civilians. In essence, the policy says that people are free to fly nano-drone (weighing 250 grams or less). Some restrictions include a flying height limit and staying away from sensitive installations. So if you are not near an airport or a government building, you can fly a nano-drone for recreation or as a service.
For larger and any other type, size or category of drones, an unmanned aircraft operator permit will be required. The operator will have to register the drone and follow strict rules to ensure air safety and social privacy. The remote pilots will need certified training and security clearance before they launch a drone in the sky. Then there are technical specifications and maintenance rules which require the drone operator to keep relevant authorities informed at all times.
These rules have been termed restrictive and suffocating by many but it seems that the government is erring on the side of caution. This is a tenable approach by the DGCA since virtually no one in the country can anticipate how drones would be deployed if there was unhindered freedom. At this early stage of drone usage in India, it is better to begin with a tightly controlled environment and then ease up the rules over time.
The need and usage of drones for civilian use is set to explode. Drones can be incredibly useful for town planning, utility mapping, road surveys, forest surveys, agriculture, traffic control and even crowd management at large gatherings. In a country where urban areas are congested and rural areas are poorly connected, drones can offer several critical services. Medical support, delivery of products, emergency relief are just a few possibilities. It is no exaggeration to say that drones will offer services that we can’t anticipate right now.
Demand for drone services will soar rapidly and we will witness the rise of new industry in the country. This industry will include manufacturers, importers, operators, training institutions and services companies. DGCA has begun to offer accreditation to training institutes already. The drone pilots will have to study basic radio telephony, flight planning procedures, basic aviation meteorology among other subjects. There are no figures available yet but the entire industry could spawn the creation of hundreds of thousands of jobs.
Investment in local manufacturing will also rise and the demand for trained professionals will increase. An important category of job creation will be for data scientists who apply the information gathered by drones for various objectives. Already, several drone based start-ups are offering services for government bodies and private corporations. From district commissioners to telecom tower companies, almost everyone can think of a use for a drone.
The official policy will offer the legal framework to enable the creation of a totally new eco-system. Already the industry has come together to create a Drone Federation of India. The next step for the government is to create an informed environment with adequate capability in relevant official agencies. A comprehensive effort will be required for training and sensitising local administration, judiciary and enforcement agencies. Soon the boundaries of the policy will be tested and the loopholes will be exploited (willingly or not). A young industry with enthusiastic operators will end up making mistakes and there will be a learning curve for all stakeholders.
However, to ensure the regulatory response is balanced, officialdom will have to be trained as well. Currently, the DGCA has to monitor and manage a few flying zones. With the rise of drones, every neighbourhood will be a flying zone. How will the government machinery monitor safe flying that does not violate the rules? How will the government ensure that permissions are granted rapidly without red tape strangling new ideas? These questions need to be dealt with.
India is witnessing the birth and rise of a new industry which has no historical precedence. The drone industry is new both to the world and India but the country needs to quickly seize its potential. Drones can offer tremendous information to a data poor country like India and after the IT and space industry, it is likely to have the most impact on the country. The government must see this industry as an economic catalyst to ensure that those “eyes in the sky” can help India see itself better.
(This article was first published on The DNA. Read the original article.)
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)