Drones - For India, By India
Not long ago, drones were considered as a product which were restricted to military or defense use. No one would’ve imagined what these machines could’ve done when put into a common man’s hand. Fast forward to today, drones are everywhere. It’s a thing of the past when drones were considered unreal or something which is just CGI in a sci-fi hollywood movie. Today, the application area of drones is huge. From shooting a movie sequence to delivering packages, drones are being used everywhere. Let’s take an example of the latest use case where drones were extensively used in India for anti-locust operations. Despite the regulations not allowing spraying of pesticides from aerial vehicles, the Ministry of Civil Aviation issued an order granting ‘conditional exemption’ for the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmer Welfare to carry out the anti-locust operations1 using drones for aerial surveillance, aerial photography, public announcements and/or aerial spraying of anti-locust pesticides. So it’s a known fact that drones have helped mankind achieve what might have been impossible otherwise. As the use cases of the drones are quite vast, India is a big market. Yes, a big consumer market. India has always been a big ‘consumer’ market for most product categories and the same applies to drones. But why is India just a consumer? Why can’t we be a consumer as well as a producer?
India’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) issued a circular in 2014 that banned the use of drones in Indian Airspace2 till any further notice. Four years later, in 2018, DGCA released a new set of regulations called Civil Aviation Requirements (CAR) for civil use of Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) commonly known as Drones. Between 2014 and 2018, India lagged behind as there was no formal policy for the use or manufacturing of drones in the country. The regulations released in 2018 brought a new set of challenges for the users as well as the manufacturers. Drones being a fairly new technology, especially for India, majority of the companies involved in manufacturing drones are startups. The companies did not have enough experience or resources to cope up with the regulations which further caused a delay in India’s adoption to the technology. The new rules required a special kind of regulatory compliance called “No Permission, No Take-Off” (NPNT) which basically means that the drone operator cannot get their drone in the air unless they obtain a valid permission from the regulator. Along with the regulations, an online platform called Digital Sky was launched by the DGCA. The platform was aimed at making the process of drone operations, such as obtaining permissions or getting an operator permit, paperless and hassle-free. No matter how good it might look on paper, in reality it took more than a year for the platform to become operational and is still not 100% complete. These regulations have caused a major setback not only to the Indian manufacturers but to the industry leading non-Indian companies as well whose drones cannot be flown in the Indian airspace unless they comply with the regulations.
Apart from the regulations, the other thing that is slowing down the Indian drone manufacturing industry is the business ecosystem. When it comes to manufacturing, the government is trying quite hard. With schemes such as Make in India, Startup India, the government is looking forward to boost local manufacturing as much as possible and reduce dependency on imports. But drones being a fairly new technology for India, the ecosystem is not yet in place. To indigenize any product, the Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) would require an established ecosystem with suppliers, distributors, certifying agencies and so on. However, majority of the drone technology rely on hardware parts such as Flight Controllers, Brushless DC Motors, Radio Devices, Imaging Systems, different kinds of sensors, payload mechanisms. It is evident that India relies on imports even for basic components like Semiconductors, Imaging solutions, electro-mechanical parts, drones are no exception. The industry is not yet ready for complete indigenisation.
The Way Ahead
Despite all the hardships, the Indian drone manufacturers have still managed to find a way out. As of date, there are over 20 drones enlisted on Digital Sky which have been approved, which means that they meet the minimum eligibility criteria as per the guidelines issued by the regulator. Along with that, the platform also contains the details of the 35+ UINs issued so far. Recently, the DGCA has signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Quality Control of India (QCI) for the certification of RPAS. This is done to fast-track the process of accepting the applications by the manufacturers for the approval of their drones. With government pushing the companies to adopt more and more local manufacturing rather than relying on import, and the mindset of the drone manufacturers to become self-reliant and independent, the drone ecosystem will improve in the coming years. The manufacturers will have to innovate and take advantage of the resources available within the country to make the maximum of this technology.