by Ramakrishnan Narayanan

Barely five months after announcing the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Rules, which had been met with a tepid response, the Indian government has had a quick rethink. Last week it announced the Liberalized Drone Rules, 2021, which promise to make life infinitely less complicated for drone operators.

The new rules, says a government press release, are built on the premise of trust, self-certification and non-intrusive monitoring, while balancing safety and security considerations. The country’s newly appointed civil aviation minister Jyotiraditya Scindia is confident that India has the potential to be a global drone hub by 2030.
The Drone Rules have abolished several approvals, cut down the paperwork from 25 forms to five, and reduced the types of fees from a complex 72 to a mere four. The quantum of fees will now be nominal and has been delinked from the size of the drone. For example, the fee for a remote pilot license has been reduced from 3,000 rupees (about $40), to a mere 100 rupees (about $1.35) for all categories of drones.

The government plans to develop a user-friendly digital sky platform with an interactive airspace map displaying green, yellow and red zones. No permissions will be required for operating drones in green zones. There will no longer be any restriction on foreign ownership in Indian drone companies, while the import of drones will be regulated by the Directorate General of Foreign Trade. The coverage of drones under Drone Rules will be increased from 300kg to 500kg, including drone taxis.

Smit Shah, Director, Drone Federation of India, an industry body, says the government has taken a most pragmatic and industry-friendly approach by repealing the March rules and replacing them with a new set of guidelines. “These new rules put India on a par with other countries as far as regulation goes. It is now up to the industry to make use of the opportunity.”

Some Indian billionaires seem to be prepared to grab this. Billionaire Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries has a majority stake in drone manufacturer Asteria Aerospace, which has developed drones weighing between 15 kilos to less than 2 kilos. India’s second-richest person Gautam Adani’s group company Adani Defence Aerospace, has tied up with Israeli company Elbit Systems to make unmanned aerial vehicles in a factory in south India. Tata Advanced Systems, part of the diversified conglomerate Tata Group, is focusing on designing and developing mini and micro UAVs, while Mahindra Defence, a unit of billionaire Anand Mahindra’s Mahindra & Mahindra group, has tied up with Aeronautics of Israel for naval shipborne UAVs.

Shah estimates the market potential to be over 500 billion rupees ($6.85 billion) in the next five years; already there are over 100 drone companies and more than 200 service providers in the country. These include start-ups such as Detect Technologies, which uses unmanned aerial vehicles to monitor oil industry structures, and Aarav Unmanned Systems, which has successfully raised venture capital funding,

India’s civil aviation regulator, Director General of Civil Aviation, had imposed a blanket ban on the use of drones in the country in 2014 after someone tried to deliver pizzas using a drone. The government unveiled the first drone policy in 2018, which was restrictive and sought to impose absolute control over the sector. Since then, the government and industry have worked together to evolve guidelines.

Recently, the Civil Aviation Ministry permitted drone trials by a few companies, including Mahindra & Mahindra, the government-owned steel company SAIL, Bayer Crop Science and even the state government of Karnataka for various purposes. Restaurant aggregators and food delivery firms such as Zomato and Swiggy have been involved in drone trials for food deliveries. Others have been conducting trials for delivering medicines and other essentials in remote parts of the country, while several states have expressed interest in using drones to deliver Covid-19 vaccines to India’s hinterland. According to Shah, with the new rules, the sky is the limit.