India’s Digital Sky system for drones, the mainstay of regulations that will govern how drones are used and a multi-million dollar industry emerges in the country, is taking shape as air infrastructure regulator Airports Authority of India (AAI) works on selecting a developer for the system.
The AAI, on September 27, released a request for proposal (RFP) for companies to build, host and maintain the Digital Sky system. Once awarded, the system is expected to be ready in about eight months. The developer will own and maintain the Digital Sky system for five years from when the operations begin, according to the RFP documents.
Meanwhile, the technical draft of the Digital Sky system, currently being reviewed by a few operators and which will explain the architecture and workflow of the various modules in the Digital Sky system, is expected to be released in a phased manner starting as early as this week, a source with direct knowledge of the development said.
“At a conceptual level, what the systems require is that each drone has a unique ID, the actual ‘No Permission, No Take-off’ (NPNT) model, and the final flight log that will be submitted after operations,” the source said. The log will have to be digitally signed with the drone’s unique ID.
The plans for Digital Sky, which involves integrating drone registrations, management, and flight operations on to a single platform, was announced by India’s minister of state for civil aviation Jayant Sinha late last year. The draft drone regulations, after multiple roadblocks over two years, were released in August.
Earlier in March this year, senior aviation ministry and AAI officials visited the Mysuru airport to observe a demo of a Digital Sky-like system developed by Skylark Drones, a drone operator company from Bengaluru.
One of the key factors in the Digital Sky system is a unique identifier for each drone which has to be registered on the platform.
The unique ID will function a lot like the IMEI number found in mobile devices. According to the source quoted earlier without name, the unique ID system is being designed to be tamper-proof so that even if there is a hardware modification on the drone, the user or operator will not be able to generate the same unique ID that the drone previously used.
The unique ID will also be used to digitally sign flight logs that the operator has to upload after an operation is completed. This will ensure the traceability of an operation or an incident as and when required.
“The main idea is to ensure that the system and authorities are aware of who is operating when and where so that in case if something goes wrong, they are able to trace back the operator and other details related to the incident,” the source said.
The NPNT system is being implemented so that a drone will not be armed and be allowed to take off without permission. The permission artefact that operators can download after approval will be encrypted in order to avoid tampering with the approved parameters.
“To ensure that the NPNT file is not spoofed, there will be a simple system wherein the drone can authenticate the file using a public key issued by the digital sky system which the drone platform can use to authenticate the permission,” said the source. The public key can be thought of as a digital signature issued by the aviation regulator Directorate General of Civil Aviation, or DGCA, which can be used to validate the authenticity of the permission received from the Digital Sky system.
The NPNT authorisation can be taken for a block of time and multiple flights within that time span will be permitted, the source added.
A lot of the drone operations being conducted across India are at locations that might not have data connections. So, the system is being designed such that the drones do not need connectivity with the Digital Sky system while flying.
The encrypted permission file can be transferred to the drone anyhow – even via a USB stick. “The drone can then authenticate the NPNT file using the public key issued by the Digital Sky system. Also, for authentication, you might not be required to be online or connected because once you have the public key it can be used within its rotation period. So it is built for offline use,” said the source.
For sure, the system is not foolproof and bad actors will always find a workaround and also can operate drones that are not configured to work with the Digital Sky system. But, the idea is to minimise the room for such risks.
There are still details that are unclear and questions that remain unanswered. For instance, how early could a permission be applied for? What will be the penalty for those flouting rules? Who will monitor the drone test sites?
In the past, we have seen home implementation of reg-tech can cause panic and problems for users. E.g.: the implementations of the GST-network (GSTN) which has been marred with challenges and led to multiple extensions of deadlines.
According to Ananth Padmanabhan, a fellow of tech and policy at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, implementing reg-tech in emerging spaces like drones can have additional challenges to deal with. “The Digital Sky system essentially is a reg-tech and like instances we have seen in the past with such tech, there will be a lot of hiccups. Now, unlike the financial sector where reg-tech was introduced at a much later stage, drones are an emerging tech and introducing reg-tech just as the industry begins to take off will just add to the complexity of the problem,” he said.
There are other parts of the policy and its enforcement that needs to be sewn up. “There still needs to be clarity on how the regulations will be enforced and what the penalties are for flouting them. Also, from a manufacturer’s perspective the regulations need more clarity especially on matters like test sites and R&D of drones,” said Neel Mehta, co-founder and director of drone manufacturer Asteria Aerospace.