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How Modi government has killed its own drones project

The drone ecosystem in India is stuck due to three issues: lack of ownership within the government, non-operational Digital Sky platform, and the NPNT guidelines

How Modi government has killed its own drones project

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More than a year has already gone by, and the drone regulations, which came into force in December 2018, are yet to be implemented. The policy, which is believed to be futuristic with features like NPNT (no permission, no take-off), seems to have been caught in its design flaws. The policy is aimed to regularising the drone sector which was operating under the shadows for several years. While there is no official data, it's estimated that the number of drones in commercial, military and recreational side would be about 6 lakh. Even though military drones are operating under some kind of regulations, some 2 lakh commercial and recreational drones are still operating illegally. Or as one of the largest operator, Rahat Kulshreshtha, founder of Quidich, puts it: "Even if people who want to fly drones legally, they cannot do it since there's no way to register." Why?

Largely, the drone ecosystem is stuck due to three issues: lack of ownership within the government, non-operational Digital Sky platform, and the NPNT guidelines.

The biggest challenge is the Civil Aviation Ministry giving low priority to the drone sector. Historically, the focus was low and the ministry has been, in a way, clueless about what it wants to do with the growing dominance of drones. For instance, DGCA abruptly banned the use of drones in 2014 after a Mumbai-based Fransesco's Pizzeria tried to deliver a pizza on a drone.

Between 2014 and 2018, the world moved ahead but India lagged behind as there was no formal policy to promote domestic manufacturing, develop local use cases and support innovation. Nearly 90 per cent of the drones during the period were imported (illegally) - most of which were sold by Chinese firm DJI. But when the former civil aviation minister Jayant Sinha joined the ministry in mid-2016, he saw a major deadlock between different ministries in framing a new policy.

He solved the logjam, ironed out the differences, and finalised the policy in about two years. Since his departure, the drones project has become an orphaned child. Nobody really owns it, and that's the big reason why the policy has proved to be ineffective so far. Recently, the ministry asked for voluntary disclosure of information for non-compliant drones flying in India by January 31.

The drone regulations are perhaps dealing with problems of its own making. How? When the policy came into force, the government and the industry called it a benchmark policy globally. People thought that some of its features (like NPNT and Digital Sky system) will be copied by regulators in other countries because they were futuristic. None of that happened. Why?

One of the key tasks of the drone regulations 1.0 is to set up Digital Sky platform that will enable the operators to fly drones. This central platform, which is not yet operational, is supposed to give permission to drone operators 24 hours prior to their planned flight. Without the platform being ready, there's no way operators can seek permission. So they continue to operate the old way, which is taking permission from local police to operate. Although the local police are not an authority to grant permission; the idea is to avoid running into any trouble at the time of actual operations.

"It's still a grey area as to how the operations have to happen. There's not set process in place. We are waiting for the platform to come alive so that we can apply officially on a centralised platform. Despite of releasing the policy in December, more than 90 per cent of drones continue to operate under shadows," says a service provider.

Companies are also supposed to obtain UIN (unique identification number) - similar to car registration number - and UAOP (unmanned aircraft operator permit) - similar to a driving license - before they can fly drones legally. "So far, just two companies have got UIN and no UAOP have been issued due to partially operational Digital Sky platform," says Vipul Singh, CEO and co-founder of Aarav Unmanned Systems.

The other big issue with the policy is NPNT technology which is a hardware requirement on the drone. NPNT essentially means that if an operator doesn't have permit, the drone will not take-off no matter how hard the operator tries. Unlike the drones regulations in other parts of the world where there are no such hardware limitations, the manufacturers in India have to make changes in the hardware to be regulatory-compliant. This has led to rejig of the entire manufacturing process. While the domestic manufacturers are focusing on NPNT, their international counterparts are unlikely to make hardware-level changes for a specific market like India. That's because India is still a developing market for drones. It cannot show convincing numbers to any large global manufacturer to ask for custom drones for itself.

Experts say that it will lead to international companies not being able to operate here. "It will really slow down the growth of the sector. What we are doing is keeping all those technologies that people have developed over the years to not become part of our system," says an industry expert. A case in point is DJI which has reportedly decided to avoid introducing a majority of its products to India until regulators re-evaluate Digital Sky.

Not only imported drones are cheaper, they are good at performing specialised jobs. The use cases of drones are immense in areas like mining, industrial, agriculture, broadcast, mobility, e-commerce, inspection, medical, logistics, and others. The problem with locally-made drones is that they are too expensive, costing anywhere between Rs 10-15 lakh apiece. In comparison, the imported ones can cost as low as Rs 50,000. Because locally manufactured drones are expensive, training is going to be challenging. The training companies would not be able to afford expensive drone for testing and training, and which would affect the amount of talent pool available to operate drones.

"From the security standpoint, the policy is good but it's going to affect the growth of the sector. Regulations are the bottlenecks. The policy is restrictive and limiting the ecosystem because we have created a regulation where we are trying to run before we can walk. If we restrict the ecosystem, we will miss the game completely," says Quidich's Kulshreshtha.

At present, there are about 2,500 operators and 10 drone manufacturers registered with the industry-body Drone Federation of India. But the entire universe is much larger, especially the start-ups who are working in specialised areas.

Despite the slow start, the sector is getting some traction of late on hopes that things could improve. For instance, Reliance Industries (RIL) acquired over 51 per cent stake in full-stack drone technology firm Asteria Aerospace in December. Last June, food delivery service Zomato, which had acquired drone start-up TechEagle in late 2018, tested food delivery via drone. Globally, of course, a lot much is happening: Amazon doing regular deliveries using drones in US and the UK, Dubai planning to incorporate flying taxis and China using drones to douse fires.

The future doesn't look bright either. After two lethal attacks - Saudi Aramco's facilities were targeted in September 2019 and the recent US-ordered strike that killed Iran General Qassem Soleimani - the already-guarded Indian government is expected to take a cautious approach going forward.

These drones, as experts point out, are quite different from the machines used for commercial and recreational purposes. "The drones used for attacks cost $30-40 million. Those are different class of drones. You cannot go and buy them off-the-shelf. Israel has been manufacturing them for a long time. We are only getting to hear about them now because drones have generally become popular. For every piece of technology, there are going to be bad and good uses," says a large service provider.

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