Drones and Civil Aviation

The variety and number of UAVs in the non-military segment, the roles these are being employed in and their capability as well as performance levels, are multiplying rapidly

Issue: 4 / 2017By B.K. PandeyIllustration(s): By Anoop Kamath

On Sunday, August 20, 2017, flight operations at Indira Gandhi International Airport at Delhi, one of the busiest in the country operating around 70 flights in an hour i.e. more than one flight every minute on an average, had to be suspended temporarily when late in the evening, a Drone was spotted on one of the three runways by a pilot of an AirAsia India aircraft that was coming in to land. On further investigation it was discovered that the Drone spotted by the pilot was being operated by civilian photographers without any authority or clearance, to cover a private function in the vicinity of the airport. Flight by the Drone was clearly unauthorised and it goes without saying that such unregulated operations by Drones, more appropriately known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), in the vicinity of airports or in controlled civil air space, are indeed becoming is a serious hazard to safety of manned aircraft operating in a regulated environment not only in India, but in all other parts of the world as well.

UAV – Military and Civil

UAVs have been employed for years by the armed forces of several nations across the globe including India, in a variety of roles. The list of countries using military UAVs, as well as the roles in which these are employed, continue to expand and cover hitherto unexplored areas even including aerial combat. Today, the United States Air Force (USAF) trains more UAV operators also called "Remote Pilots” than pilots for manned aircraft every year. In fact, Robert Gates, the former Secretary of Defence when he was in office, had stated that the F-35, the latest fifth-generation aircraft from Lockheed Martin, is likely to be the last manned fighter the USAF will buy. Even if the prognosis does not come true, there is little doubt that military UAVs will continue to proliferate all over the world. In the next two decades, the strength of military UAVs in Israel is predicted to exceed the strength of manned aircraft. While the rate of growth of unmanned platforms in India, may not be as high as in the Western nations, the fact is that even with the rate at which this segment is growing at present or is likely to grow in the foreseeable future, will add a new dimension to the problem of air traffic management in civil aviation across the nation.

In India, operations by military UAVs are generally undertaken in airspace controlled by the military. In the civil aviation domain, UAVs are operated by agencies both within and outside the government. UAVs employed in non-military applications are generally smaller in size as compared to those used by the military and these have been and are being employed for missions related to search and rescue, disaster management, aerial filming, survey, crop spraying and inspection of power or pipe lines. All these operations are generally undertaken at very low altitudes and as such have not usually been in conflict with regular manned air traffic in controlled civil air space except when carried out in the vicinity of active airports as in the case of the episode at Delhi airport cited above.

What is noteworthy is that the variety and number of UAVs in the non-military segment, the roles these are being employed in and their capability as well as performance levels are multiplying rapidly. In view of the immense potential UAVs have to offer in the civil domain, their rapid growth is inevitable. As such, the resultant implications of air operations in the domain of civil aviation will undoubtedly be serious and can no longer be ignored. As per the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), the civil aviation regulatory authority in India, it has become necessary to introduce appropriate regulatory mechanisms to ensure the proper integration of operations by UAVs with manned aircraft operating in controlled civil air space. This is necessary and vital for the safety of manned air traffic.

Integrating UAVs in Civilian Airspace

The integration of operations by UAVs into controlled civil air space will, without doubt, involve a variety of complex operational, procedural and technological challenges. For UAVs to operate in controlled airspace, these platforms will need to meet the same level of airworthiness requirements as manned aircraft to be certified by the DGCA. Each of the elements and technology that make an aerial platform unmanned such as the "sense-and-avoid” system, will require its own airworthiness certification. This is where the industry and the regulatory authority will need to interact and coordinate their efforts.


Just as in the case of a manned aircraft, for a UAV that is in flight, there are three areas in which interface will be necessary. These are firstly between the Remote Pilot controlling the UAV from the ground, secondly, between the UAV and the Air Traffic Control Centre (ATC) and thirdly, between the UAV and the other traffic, both manned and unmanned, operating in the same airspace. At present, UAVs are not fully autonomous and as such, reliability of the data link, direct or through satellites, between the unmanned platform in flight and the Remote Pilot who may be sitting on the ground even thousands of miles away, would be of critical importance.

The integration of unmanned platforms with manned aircraft traffic in national air space will require review of current policies, procedures, standards, regulations, environmental impact, privacy and legal issues, identification of deficiencies in current UAV technologies and development of new technologies. The new technologies will have to be developed that will make the UAV fully autonomous. There will also be a need for a massive upgrade of ground based Air Traffic Control system and related infrastructure with clear thrust towards total automation.

The Indian Scene

While the US and Europe are leading global efforts for the integration of UAVs with manned air traffic in civil airspace, India is unfortunately lagging far behind. The fact is that developments in the regime of UAVs in the civil domain have not been as impressive as in the West and this is attributable to the absence of favourable policies and regulations to encourage indigenous design, development and manufacture of unmanned platforms. This segment of the aviation industry also suffers from the absence of security guidelines as well as lack of suitable mechanism to enforce these even if these were available. This is one reason why there has been unregulated proliferation of UAVs in India resulting in unmanned platforms becoming a serious security hazard.

In 2014, the DGCA had issued a public notice prohibiting the launch of a UAV by private individuals or any non-governmental agency. This restriction was imposed on account of security concerns as UAVs whose operations are not properly regulated, could be used by anti-national elements to carry out attacks against vital installations or public places. Unfortunately, such a notification would unwittintgly have been a serious disincentive for entrepreneurs desirous of investing in the Indian aerospace industry in the private sector for research and development of UAVs. Also, as of now, there are no regulations for certification of Remote Pilots and UAVs in India.

Two years later, in April 2016, the DGCA issued a fresh circular in which the regulator observed that UAVs are proliferating into the recreational field and are likely to be used in several other domains causing problems for the regulator with regard to safety of other users of airspace as well as persons and infrastructure on the ground. The regulator stated that in view of technological advancements in this field over the years and their increased civil applications, it has become necessary to develop guidance material to regulate this activity. In this circular, the regulator laid down guidelines for obtaining Unique Identification Number (UIN) as well as for operation of UAVs in civil airspace. However, there were no concrete steps towards proper integration of UAVs with manned air traffic.

In the wake of the incident at Delhi airport on August 20 this year, the DGCA has revived efforts to regulate the use of UAVs and has announced its intent to come out with a draft regulation for operation of UAVs in the near future. However, proper integration through automation of UAVs as well as the air traffic control system is still far away. Regulatory measures on paper will only impede the growth of UAVs in Indian airspace.