India’s aviation regulator DGCA, short for the directorate general of civil aviation, has put out for public consultations a draft policy for use of commercial drones in the country ahead of finalisation by January.
While parts of the policy may seem cautious for a sector that holds immense promise in a crowded country with poor connectivity, a comparison with laws governing drones elsewhere in the world shows India’s draft drone regulations make for a tentative yet balanced first step by India.
In a tweet thread last week, this writer had done a first take on the draft drone policy pointing out the conservative parts of the proposed rules that propose a large government role in licensing and operations of drones. Some countries have even more stringent regulations, it turns out. More on that later in the highlights of international drone laws.
“The guidelines have brought more clarity regarding some operations and is much briefer. But this does not mean that there are no concerns from companies,” says Anirudh Rastogi, Managing Partner at law firm TRA, whose clients include drone companies.
Access to drone test sites
The introduction of designated sites for drone testing and R&D is seen as a step forward taken by DGCA in the new draft civil aviation requirements (CAR) for drones. There are 23 test sites in India spread over 11 states.
Any company that wants to use a test site for R&D or testing requirements for drones needs to obtain an industrial licence from the central government’s department of industrial policy and promotion, besides having the mandatory unique identification number (UIN) and unmanned aircraft operator permit (UAOP).
Even after getting these approvals, access to sites is not easy because they are in far-flung areas. For example, a drone company will have to either travel to the Chitradurga Aeronautical test site, around 220 km away from Bengaluru, or one at Ganimangala, 170 km away, to test prototypes.
TRA’s Rastogi says easy access to such sites is a concern for companies. “Test sites should essentially be away from populated areas and cities for safety reasons. Easy and frequent access for startups and companies are essential, especially in the R&D stage,” he says.
Open tracts of land in the outskirts of cities could be designated as tests sites if they are away from populated areas and other obstacles, for instance.
Autonomous drones and commercial operations
In autonomous commercial operations, the drone pilot remotely feeds the coordinates or flightpath on the onboard navigation system of the drone, which then takes over and controls the actual flight. Some such use cases are in agriculture, search and rescue, geo-mapping and monitoring of critical infrastructure.
In the above-mentioned cases, especially in instances like monitoring infrastructure such as gas pipelines or power pylons and lines, autonomous drones are better suited than human-controlled ones. “Many of the drone operations in the commercial space require repetitive operations and often require high precision. Autonomous drones are best suited for such operations,” says Rastogi.
In this case, the draft Indian regulation is not very different from international laws, as several other countries don’t allow fully autonomous operations of drones, too.
After publication of the draft policy, it is still not clear what operators who are currently operating drones, that are partly autonomous, will have to do. There are deployments on at the complexes of companies such as Reliance Industries, oil PSUs Indian Oil, Bharat Petroleum and Hindustan Petroleum, and Coromandel Fertilisers for inspection of their equipment and facilities.
Operational altitude restriction
Another concern raised is regarding the restriction of the standard operational altitude of micro, mini and heavier drones to 200-feet above ground level (AGL) heights.
“Most international drone regulations permit drone operations up to 400-feet AGL as it is a good height to stay clear of obstructions also many critical infrastructure monitoring operations require flying above the 200-feet mark,” says Rastogi.
A 20-storey building is approximately 200-feet high and, in many cases, that is not high enough to work in or stay clear of obstacles.
“Many operations like monitoring power lines, aerial photography, geo-mapping from drones etc require flying at higher than 200-feet AGL,” says Bhavesh Sangani, a drone racer and pilot with Goradiocontrol, who pilots drones for aerial photography and other projects often.
Operational weight restrictions
Weight restrictions are another concern. “Nowadays the dead weight of a racing drone without the battery itself will cross 250 grams (gms). The batteries alone will weigh at least 200 gms,” says Sangani, who feels that bumping racing drones into the micro category will add UIN requirements which are not easy to get.
DJI, a popular drone brand used internationally and in India, has the DJI Spark, one of its smallest models, weighing in at 300 gms automatically qualifying it for the mini category. Other models such as the DJI Mavic Pro and Phantom, commonly used for recreational purposes and by aerial photographers, too, fall in this category necessitating licenses.
Assuming the weight criteria stays unchanged, the key to widespread adoption of drones will be the ease of process in getting the paperwork around licences and certification done. If not, the fledgling community of drone racers and recreational consumers will stay stunted.
For perspective, here’s a look at the key highlights from the drone regulations of some other countries to give us an idea of where the Indian draft drone regulations stand:
The Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority doesn’t prescribe a remote pilot’s licence or operator’s certificate for commercial operations of drones under 2 kg. Drones weighing two to 25 kg are allowed to be operated over a person’s own land for certain purposes under standard conditions without a licence or certificate.
Operating drones above these weight categories require a remote licence or certificate.
Operators in Australia are required to maintain a visual line of sight (VLOS) with the drone and fly below 400 feet AGL unless prior approval is taken. Operations above 400-feet AGL are permitted only in designated areas of controlled airspace and require air traffic control clearance.
Large drones require a special certificate of airworthiness or an experimental certificate for operations.
Transport Canada allows for the recreational use of drones weighing between 250 gms and 35kg up to a height of 295 feet within a radius of 500 metres of the operator without the need for a certification or licence as long as the operator is following strict safety conditions like maintaining distances from obstacles and restricted areas.
Operators of drones, irrespective of its weight, involved in non-recreational purposes are required to apply for a special flight operation certificates (SFOC). Operators of a drone, even it’s for recreational purposes, weighing more than 35 kg requires an SFOC.
All drones weighing more than 250 gms need to be registered and all commercial drone operations require a license from the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC).
The maximum operational height of a drone is limited to 400-feet AGL and all operations need to be done in the daytime within VLOS. Flight operations beyond VLOS require prior approvals.
A pilot’s licence is required to operate a drone weighing more than 7 kg, to fly above 40 feet AGL, and more than 500 metre of sight.
Drone operators are also required to have insurance for third-party damages.
France allows operation of drones weighing not more than 25 kg for experimental or testing purposes. It does not generally require a special permit as long as the operation follow safe operating standards and certain flight requirements.
Drones weighing more than 25 kg cannot be flown without prior authorization from the civil aviation department and can only be operated by individuals specifically listed on the authorization document of the drone.
Drone operations should be carried out within the pilot’s line of sight. Operations beyond that require a second person who has the drone in view. The second person should also be able to take control of the drone, if needed.
Autonomous drones that weigh less than 1 kg can be operated as long as they fly for less than eight minutes.
Drone pilots are required to have a certificate of theoretical competence for flying a manned aircraft and must take a practical training course determined by the drone operator.
Authorisation from the relevant state aviation authority is needed to operate drones heavier than 5 kg or to fly at night. This is usually valid for a period of two years.
Drones less than 5 kg must be kept within the operator’s visual line of sight at all times. Drones weighing more than 25 kg are not allowed.
All drones and model aircraft weighing more than 250 gms must be marked with a permanent and fireproof label indicating the name and address of the owner.
Operators of drones weighing more than 2 kg require a pilot’s licence or a similar certificate from an agency recognized by the Federal Aviation Office.
All drone operations must be done within VLOS at all times.
Operators require third-party insurance for operations.
Drones are classified based on their weight, technical complexity and operational environment in three categories: A, B and C — with A being the lightest and least complex category and C being the highest.
Category A drones usually weigh upto 7 kg. Drones in this category don’t require certifications but pilots need to provide evidence of competency to operate them. Operations need to be conducted in VLOS. Standard operational limits include VLOS operations no further than 500m away from the pilot horizontally or 400 feet above him or her vertically.
Category B drones typically weigh between seven and 150 kg. Drones in this category require airworthiness and operational approvals, as also proof of pilot competency to operate them. The operation can be conducted in VLOS and Extended-VLOS regions.
Category C drones also weigh seven to 150 kg but are technically very complex to operate and are used in complex operational environments. Drones in this category undergo a rigorous assessment and have stricter approvals. The pilot and operating conditions are similar to those in Category B drones except these are allowed to operate in beyond-VLOS and complex airspaces.
Even though complete autonomous operation of a UAS is not permitted, certain parts of operations can be carried out without human intervention with prior authorisation from authorities.
United States of America
Regulations in the US are broadly divided into ‘Fly for Fun’ and ‘Fly for Work’.
In the ‘Fly for Fun’ category, the drone must be registered if it weighs above 249.48 gms and weight must not exceed 24.95 kg. It should be operated 8.05 km from airports and should notify the airport and air traffic control tower if operations within this range are to be conducted.
In the ‘Fly for Work’ category, again, the drone weight must be less than 24.95 kg. All drones weighing over 250 gms used in this category must be registered. They can be flown only in daytime within VLOS and 400-feet AGL height.
The pilot must be at least 16 years old for the ‘Fly for Work’ category, pass an initial aeronautical knowledge test of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and must be vetted by the Transportation Safety Administration.
The FAA allows autonomous drones operations but under certain conditions.
(Editor’s note: There might be changes in some of these regulations over time as several of these countries, just like India, are still figuring out the appropriate rules for various drone use cases and are in the process of modifying policies. If you see any discrepancies in the above mentioned regulations, do let us know in the comments below.)
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Visuals: Rajesh Subramanian
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