Drones & Indian Civil Aviation

A major impediment to the employment of drones in the Indian civil aviation domain has been the difficulty in seamlessly integrating the operation of pilotless vehicles into civilian airspace

Issue: 6 / 2015By B.K. PandeyPhoto(s): By 3D Robotics

A Drone is an Unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), one without a pilot onboard, which was developed essentially for military applications or for special operations. Today, drones are preferred over manned aircraft in a wide range of missions that are described in the lexicon of fliers as “dull, dirty or dangerous”. In fact, the armed forces of the leading military powers in the world are even actively considering the future of their air forces to be ‘Unmanned’. A clear indicator of things to come is that the United States Air Force (USAF) now trains more drone operators every year than pilots and the former is only growing in number. The US Army is raising a new corps with around 3,000 drones and to operate and maintain this fleet which would be more than twice as large as the fleet of manned aircraft in the Indian Air Force (IAF), the USAF is in the process of training 30,000 personnel. A few years ago, Robert Gates, the then US Secretary of Defense, had even gone on to state that in all probability, the F-35 was the last manned combat aircraft that the USAF would buy.

Operation of Drones

A drone can be ‘autonomous’ in operation or in other words, its onboard computers can be programmed while the vehicle is on the ground. Thereafter the drone can takeoff, fly the complete profile of the mission and return to base. In case of a glitch during the mission, the computers are programmed to steer the vehicle back to base for a landing. Alternatively, the flight path of the drone can be controlled remotely by an operator on the ground or onboard a ship at sea, even sitting thousands of kilometres away through satellite link. Drones and their weaponised version that are also referred to as the unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), have been and continue to be used extensively in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region by the US armed forces. In fact, drones had proved their worth on the battlefield way back in the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and subsequently in the war in Lebanon in 1982.

Civil Application of Drones

In recent years, there has been increasing employment of UAVs or drones in many parts of the world in non-military or civil applications such as aerial surveillance, disaster management, maintenance of law and order, firefighting, air ambulance, management of border security, agricultural applications such as crop spraying or crop assessment, video coverage of events for the media, monitoring of wildlife, inspection of power or oil pipelines, anti-poaching patrols as well as simple recreational activity. However, for many years, very few countries have had the necessary framework of rules in place to regulate operation by drones in the domain of purely civil aviation. The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) has not yet promulgated any standards and recommended practices (SARPs) for operation of drones in civil applications. It was only in May this year that the US Government notified regulations for the operation of drones in civil roles. For the US, this will definitely be the most challenging exercise as its airspace has the highest density of traffic in the world. In Europe, each member nation of the European Union (EU) presently has its own set of regulations for operation of drones. However, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) is in the process of formulating a single set of rules that will regulate operation of drones in civil airspace all across the EU. The new regulations are expected to come into force in 2016.

The regulatory authorities in most parts of the world have understood that drones are here to stay and in the long run their use can be extremely beneficial to the economy

Japan has recently formalised and implemented regulations for operation of drones by civil agencies. This action by the Japanese Government was taken in the wake of an unauthorised flight of a drone over the Prime Minister’s office in central Tokyo. This was seen as an unwarranted transgression and a serious threat to national security. Australia, New Zealand and Spain have also notified provisional norms for the civilian use of drones. Spain is especially liberal with the usage of drones for investigations, agriculture, surveillance, aerial advertising, search and rescue operations, radio and TV transmissions and more.

The Indian Regulatory Scenario

The Indian Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), however, has finally responded to the growing clamour in the country for the use of drones for both commercial and recreational purposes. While the DGCA has circulated draft guidelines to all the stakeholders and has invited their views and comments, in the interim, it has restricted employment of drones in the civil domain by non-government agencies, organisations or individuals. A public notice to this effect dated October 7, 2014, has been posted on the DGCA website. Meanwhile, the DGCA is in the process of formulating the regulations for the certification and operation of drones in the civil airspace in India. It will also be necessary for the DGCA to ensure that the new rules framed are in harmony with the international regulations related to this domain which by themselves are also in the process of evolution. Currently, in India, for an individual or a civil organisation desirous of operating a drone in civil airspace, the individual or the organisation would have to negotiate a labyrinthine procedure involving multiple agencies. Operation of a drone in civil or military airspace would require the operator to obtain clearance from a number of agencies such as the Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Civil Aviation, the DGCA as well as possibly other security agencies that could be involved. The exercise can be long and tedious as also extremely frustrating for the applicant.

Operation of Drones in Civil Airspace

Drones undoubtedly provide low-cost alternative to many of the tasks that have so far been undertaken by manned aircraft and at no risk to life of the pilot. In fact, some of the tasks that can be accomplished with drones could not have been undertaken by manned aircraft. Compared to manned platforms, drones can remain airborne for longer duration as the number of hours for which these have to remain airborne, is not subject to the limitations of human endurance. However, drones have to necessarily operate in the same airspace that is used by manned aircraft and as the airspace practically all over the world is getting increasingly congested with manned aircraft traffic, the possibility of conflict between drones and civil air traffic is also increasing by the day. Also, drones are vulnerable to technical failure that could end in a crash leading to loss of lives and damage to property on the ground.

One of the major impediments to the unfettered employment of drones in India in the civil domain has been the difficulty in seamlessly integrating the operation of pilotless vehicles into civilian airspace so as to obviate the possibility of conflict with civil air traffic. The ever growing density of civil air traffic renders the task that much more difficult and challenging. A weak regulatory framework, untested operating procedures, deficiencies in technology, absence of a human being on board and limitations of air traffic controllers as well as of those controlling the drones remotely, all together contribute to the enhancement of the possibility of collision with manned civil air traffic. But perhaps a greater concern is the threat to national security implicit in the unregulated operation of drones by civil agencies.

The Final Word

Although, drones were designed primarily for military use, the situation is changing and their role in civil aviation can no longer be ignored or suppressed. The regulatory authorities in most parts of the world have understood that drones are here to stay and in the long run their use can be extremely beneficial to the economy. While the DGCA has responded to the changing times and has initiated the process of formulating a set of rules to regulate the operation of drones in the civil domain, this subject finds no mention in the draft National Civil Aviation Policy unveiled in the recent past. Clearly, much more needs to be done to promote this fledgling segment of the civil aviation industry through the introduction of a single window clearance for civil drone operators to begin with.