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It was a bright sunny day in August 1849 and the streets of Venice (Italy) were flooded with people who were celebrating the famous carnival – Festa della Madonna della Salute. These people had little idea that their joy was soon to turn into horror; as the sky began to fill with time-bomb laden hot air balloons from their war rival – Austria. Thanks to a sudden turn of winds, these unmanned bomber balloons were swept away from the main population centers and the inhabitants had a narrow escape. For the very first time in history, unmanned flying objects were used to drop bombs on the enemy territory. This technology evolved further with time and today is known as drones – and estimates are that they will be a market worth $100 billion globally by 2020, thirty percent of it being non-military.

We are well aware that because of their ability to reach inaccessible places at low costs, drones are used for numerous purposes ranging from military to rescue operation to surveying and delivering goods.

The “Dark Side” of Drones

However, there is a dark side to them as well.

Nothing highlighted this side more than the September 14, 2019 drone strikes at the Saudi Arabian Oil Corporation or Saudi Aramco. The Yemen based Houthi rebels claimed responsibility even though Saudis blamed rival Iran. This incident has created a stir across the globe. It was the first time in the world that ten drones struck a coordinated attack in a covert manner without national military backing. Perhaps, this is the example of the world’s first coordinated terrorism drones striking and it caught Saudis completely off-guard. Consequently, Saudi Arabia has shut down roughly half of its oil production capacity (about 5% of total world oil output) and the world economy, already in down spin, may be affected further by a spike in the oil price.

The danger of uncontrolled drones was on display even earlier.

In August 2018, there was an attack by improvised bomb-drone on the controversial Venezuelan President Nicholas Madura. The device was made using commercially available drones. The attack narrowly missed its target, exploding mid-air in full view of global media also showing the sheer unpreparedness in the President’s security.

In December 2018, runway operations at Gatwick Airport in London were halted for about 36 hours after a drone was observed flying in the area. This affected nearly 1,000 flights and about 140,000 passengers.

The trouble is that most of our current civilian security systems are designed to combat a two-dimensional strike. There is little protection evolved to combat a low cost, low skill three-dimensional attack – and this means a complete and very costly overhaul of all security system. Saudi strike shows how this lesson needs to be absorbed and acted upon.

Governments are struggling in Gearing up for the Drones

There is no doubt that the drone industry is on boom growing at a pace of over 40% per year with over 274,000 units sold commercially in 2018. In such a rapidly changing and evolving ecosystem, policymakers are having a tough time across the globe to match the rate at which drones are reaching homes. While some countries have come up with clear and distinct drone laws, others are still struggling to establish drone laws to match the changing landscape of drones over the years. And of course, making the law is one thing, but controlling a pilotless, low cost and rather easy to manufacture device is a whole different level of challenge.

In 2014, India imposed a sudden and sweeping ban on the use of civil drones. This came after a Mumbai based Pizzeria tried to use an unmanned vehicle to air-drop pizzas in its vicinity. Such a knee jerk reaction did set back the emerging domestic drone industry by years, an opportunity well encashed by China. In the following years, the ban was shown clearly impractical as imported drones being easily available both online and offline platforms as toys. It took four years for the government agencies to start seeing the flaws and missed an opportunity, as in 2018, the Government of India came up with a regulatory policy regarding the use of drones.

The policy classifies drones based on their total weight with cargo and fuel (usually battery) which is also called “all-up weight”. These classes are Nano (upto 250 grams), Micro (from 250 g to 2 kg), Small (from 2 kg to 25 kg), Medium (from 25 kg to 150 kg) and Large (greater than 150 kg).

Under this policy, flying a drone is not as simple as buying it. Technically, one cannot simply take a drone and pilot it into the airspace without a long list of compliances. The government has come up with a first-of-its-kind national Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) called the “Digital Sky Platform”.

Quite uniquely, India also has a ‘No Permission- No Takeoff’ (NPNT) clause. This means that the drone needs to be configured with special software and/or hardware in such a manner that unless the regulatory permission is given through the Digital Sky Platform, the drone cannot fly. In other words, until the NPNT add-on is implemented, no drone manufacturer should be able to sell drones in India.

However, the on-ground reality disagrees with this.

According to the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), only four companies –  are NPNT compliant. While both the online and offline markets are flooded with drones where NPNT does not even find a mention. Even drones with the ability to remotely “drop payloads” are available online for less than Rs. 10,000.

Air Space, UAV and Pilot all need to be registered

Further to this, the Digital Sky platform has divided the airspace of India into three categories: Red, Yellow and Green. Red means “no-fly zone” and includes airspace near international borders, near airports and other strategic locations.  Yellow is a “restricted zone” which includes airspaces that require an Air Defence Clearance/ Flight Information Centre (FIC) number from Air Traffic Control. Green is an “unrestricted zone”. However, you still need to obtain permission from the Digital Sky Platform to fly in this zone.

DGCA has also set forth a set of regulations which need to be complied with by all the drone pilots of the country. A Unique Identification Number (UIN) which is similar to the number plate of a car needs to be issued for all drones (except for nano category) from DGCA. This costs user Rs 1,000 and the number needs to be engraved on a fire-resistant plate and pasted on the drone.

The pilot also needs to be certified. The pilot would need a Remote Pilot license or an ‘Unmanned Aerial Operator Permit’ (UAOP) which costs Rs 25,000. The pilots must be at least 18 years old and need to undergo training before the UAOP is issued. And of course, even with all these licenses, Digital Sky can deny drone permission to fly at any given time with the NPNT rule.

But the Regulator itself is struggling

The massive framework of Digital Sky is one of the most comprehensive and complex in the world. In fact, it seems to be a victim of its own burden so far. There is a general absence of awareness of the Digital Sky amongst drones users and manufacturers. While enforcing NPNT at manufacturers’ end seems to be the plausible way ahead, the regulators are struggling on framing a system to keep a check on the hardware and software capabilities of the drones as there are no labs to ascertain these standards.

Meanwhile, drones are a common sight in even weddings across India. According to a very conservative estimate, there are roughly 40,000 drones already in the country. This is expected to increase to over a million in the next 4-5 years. Almost none of these are NPNT compatible and it remains to be seen what the regulator will do with these existing drones and their second-hand sale – vulnerable to unscrupulous elements.

Inaction Means Losing Opportunity

In the time of 2014 to 2018, when India put its drone industry on standstill with a ban, a Chinese company diligently innovated and transpired into a global force. This company was Dà-Jiāng Innovations better known as “DJI”.

Founded in 2006 by a student. It has 14,000 employees involved in research, development and marketing of drones across the world. DJI created its own market manufacturing drones ranging for security purposes and filming to agriculture spraying.

DJI’s true growth started in 2013. Today, it commands 70% of the global drone market, has an annual sale of over $2 billion (Rs. 15,000 crores) and valued at over $15 billion. It now has successfully entered end-to-end drone management services including integrated cameras, apps and drone video editing tools.

The Chinese government has been backing this pillar stone of the fourth industrial revolution. It is investing heavily in the technology and aerospace sector. President Xi Jinping’s Made in China 2025 initiative has been a key driver to DJI’s success. China’s economic and political environment driven towards the adoption of drones and personal mobility is of paramount importance for drone production in China.

This rapid Chinese capture of the global drone market has come at the cost of a lost opportunity to India, at least so far. Being at the suffering end of the 2014 ban, the Indian drone industry was reduced to academic projects and minor police led applications. But the battle is not lost.

According to a study done by UnearthInsight, there are about 100 drone-startups in India while the same in the United States in 681 and China is 129. The drone market is still nascent and rapidly growing with game shifting innovations yet to come. India, with its engineering, might couple with a falling trade partner’s opinion of China following the US-China Trade war, still has a chance of making drones the next sunrise sector while ensuring safety and security against Saudi like strikes. Walking that fine line of balance is what Digital Sky needs to walk on.

As published in Economic Times on 21st December 2019.

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