Coming to a sky near you: Star Wars-like digital sky, virtual corridors for drones

Anand Murali January 30, 2018 6 min

India is ready to embrace a fully-automated digital sky framework, which envisages drones and other unmanned aerial vehicles whizzing through virtual corridors, making it perhaps the only country in the world at this point in time to have such an ambitious and complex unmanned plan.

The digital sky program will be the foundation of India’s drone regulations, according to a draft of the program’s blueprint recently tabled before drone operators and companies from across India. The central government’s ministry of civil aviation has been readying its drones policy since late last year and its final version is expected to be released soon.

The digital sky program is designed to automate the entire chain of permissions required to own and operate a drone or drone service in India starting from registration of the UAV to planning and flying them — obviating the need for a large volume of paperwork.

Though the digital sky concept was absent in the policy draft, it was pitched by India’s minister of state for civil aviation Jayant Sinha. At a public consultation on the policy in November 2017, he referred to a future with drones dotting the sky all controlled by unmanned, automated air traffic control. “Increasingly the way in which people are thinking about the use of unmanned aerial vehicles is that you create a digital space where every point in that 3-D digital space is mapped out,” he had said.

Currently countries like the US and China operate online portals that facilitate registration and licensing for drone operators and pilots. But, for authorisation of flights, most of the clearances were processed and issued manually in most cases. That is, until recently, when the US aviation regulator, Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA, tied up with private companies AirMap and Skyward to provide automated flight authorisation for drones. New Zealand and Japan have an automated airspace management system for drones with AirMap.

The Indian plan seems far more complex with everything – except the actual flying – rendered on the digital sky platform. More on this below.

Officials from India’s aviation regulator Directorate General of Civil Aviation and airports regulator Airports Authority of India met with representatives from the drone industry including manufacturers and service providers on January 24 in New Delhi. The draft of the proposed digital sky program presented to them laid out frameworks, components, layers and processes. It also listed the the roles and responsibilities various parties in the ecosystem.

Also Read: India’s plan for a digital sky and drone regulations has a few road bumps ahead before takeoff

Digital sky for licences, permissions

The draft states that the entire workflow will be digital with a rules engine to manage permissions issuance. The system will also integrate features like Aadhaar, India’s citizen identity project, and the government’s digital locker to help with the workflow. For instance, it will ensure that only licensed and trained pilots will operate drones after their credentials are verified, digitally signed and authorised before each flight.

It also pointed to the difficulty in regulating drone operations even if strict laws regulating operations are in place. “Even with strict CARs, (it is) difficult to actually ensure that all UAVs are licensed and operating as per guidelines,” according to the presentation.

Here is a brief on the procedure each party has to follow on the Digital sky system;

Manufacturers
-Manufacturers will have to submit drone versions or models for certification to DGCA
-The drone’s onboard software to be compliant with the proposed SDK specifications
-Approved and certified drone models to be added to the digital sky database
-Unique Identification Number (UIN) of drones to be registered with DGCA

Operators
-Operators will to register their Unmanned Aircraft Operator Permit (UAOP) through the digital sky system
-Complete an an e-KYC process

Pilots
-Pilots to upload certifications, other documents through the digital sky for issuance of Unmanned Aerial Pilot Licence (UAPL)
-e-KYC to be completed before issuance of licence

Digital an entry barrier?

Here is how a flight plan submission will work once all the above mentioned parties have registered and received their required licences:

The operator or service provider has to submit the UIN of the drone to be used along with the flight plan and pilot’s details through the system. Once the operator’s registration and the pilot’s licences have been validated, the flight plan is send via the digital sky API to the backend for processing in the rules engine and also checked against geo-fences set up by security agencies for clearance. When all checks are cleared, the operator will receive a digitally signed permission for the flight plan.

The UAV or drone will have to download the approved flight plan and operate within the parameters cleared in the flight plan. After every flight, the operator will have to submit a flight log and incident report to the DGCA.

Such requirements being built into the system are bound to be a challenge and will make it difficult for operators and companies, said Ananth Padmanabhan, a fellow at think tank Carnegie India.

“This system will require integration of multiple factors working seamlessly which is always a trouble in any business and particularly in the case of the drone industry,” Padmanabhan told FactorDaily. “The software platform on the drone has to be closely integrated to this system and the hardware should also be responsive to the system. That is definitely going to increase your entry barrier as an entrepreneur in this space.”

Safety is Priority #1

Like in the draft regulations, safety and prevention of untoward incidents is one of the key systems built into the digital sky program.

In order to minimize the risk of unauthorized flights, security agencies will be able to set up permanent as well as temporary no-UAV zones via the system and every flight plan file will be cross checked with this before approvals are given.

Similarly, the system also will be using Aadhaar authentication for pilots as a way to tackle proxy pilots as the program rests the legal liability of a flight on the pilot who has authenticated the operation in the flight plan.

The system will also have built-in function to revoke or suspend the licence of individual operators, pilots, and drones that can land either of them in a no fly list.

DGCA and the aviation ministry won’t be developing the system on their own and will be looking at third parties to develop the system.

The entire system relies on data being submitted and stored and this has left some drone operators a bit uneasy. “Operators will not be comfortable sharing sensitive data over a system which is operated by a third party. The kind of data being shared is sensitive,” said a drone operator, who asked to remain anonymous. “Also companies would not be comfortable sharing flight logs.”

The pilot program for the digital sky system will begin shortly, according to an industry source, and will be implemented once development and testing is completed.

FactorDaily reached out to a DGCA official for comment but was not successful. If we hear from the official, we will update this story.


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