Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Let the drone industry take off

It has been nearly one year since India’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) issued its draft drone guidelines. Given the criticality of these regulations in shaping a relatively young industry in India, several industry bodies and startups had provided feedback and pushed for timely action.

That drones have tremendous practical applications can no longer be disputed. Some of India’s startups are revolutionising drone applications in areas as diverse as disaster management, precision agriculture and crop insurance, mining, infrastructure projects, and land records. The increasing use of drone-enabled solutions by various state departments and ministries — such as the railways, surface transport, power, and law enforcement — further validates their efficacy.

Yet, the Indian regulatory approach has been unfriendly thus far towards drone innovations and applications. For starters, numerous delays have occurred in finalising guidelines even after accounting for usual bureaucratic inertia. Back in October 2014, DGCA issued its first public notice, announcing that no non-government agency, organisation, or individual would be permitted to launch an unmanned aircraft system for any purpose until it issued binding regulations.

This mandate continues because the April 2016 guidelines are still in draft stage. A prohibition of 28 months and counting — with private players operating in a grey zone of quasi-permissions by local law enforcement — does not bode well for either innovation or technological adoption. Moreover, while regulation often lags behind innovation, the common default position — acts not expressly prohibited stand permitted — is comforting enough. But with civilian drones, the express prohibition places them at grave risk, providing fodder for law enforcement to officially stall test activities and use cases, and even make arrests. The regulatory tardiness in creating appropriate legal safe harbours will naturally lead to diminishing investor interest and research initiatives.
01/03/17 Ananth Padmanabhan/Business Line