Game of drones: on India’s new regulations

In recent years, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS) — often called drones — have exponentially grown in popularity.

Shopping list

  • If you buy a drone, you will crash it. So get a device capable of forgiving pilot error. Look for onboard automation, safety features, as well as good after-sales service. Like in commercial aviation, where the duopoly of Boeing and Airbus controls the market, DJI and Parrot are the two biggest manufacturers of drones for recreational and commercial purposes. There are cheaper options from other manufacturers, but for new buyers, going with one of these means you are kitted out, even at the cheapest price bracket. DJI drones are available in India, whereas Parrot drones are harder to procure in the country. Here are three options to get you started:
  • The DJI Tello Drone (approx. ₹14,000): A good low-end drone, comes with an HD 720p video camera and around 13 minutes of flight time. Easy to fly, it is limited in height and range.
  • Parrot Anafi (approx. ₹50,000): Compact, 4K video, 25 minutes of flight time and uniquely, nearly 3X zoom without any loss in image quality.
  • DJI Phantom 4 Pro (between ₹95,000 and ₹125,000) A high-end, ‘prosumer’ drone, with high-quality optics that allows for stunning 4K video, 20MP stills, obstacle avoidance and around 30 minutes of flight time, weighing under 1.4 kg.
  • Available on either amazon.in or amazon.com

Till as recently as three to four years ago, searching for drones on the Internet predominantly resulted in images of weaponised, unmanned military aircraft. But with the rise in recreational use, more people are choosing to document their holidays and weddings from up top. With the multi-billion dollar industry projected to grow in the future, the Ministry of Civil Aviation’s announcement late last month permitting the use of commercial drones (albeit with several restrictions) was a welcome shift in policy.

Keen to use it in my journalistic work, I bought my first drone (a Parrot Bebop) in 2016. The first time I flew it, I was terrified it would crash into a tree. I have since become a more adept operator, and for the past two years, I have worked with the Sri Lankan Civil Aviation Authority to promote the use of the device in journalism. We have captured many hours of footage to better illustrate key stories on topics such as the environment, wildlife, urban development and large-scale infrastructure. Our work proved that an aerial perspective adds to ground truths, offering a new way way of seeing and framing them.

Rules for a reason

Navigating your way through drone regulations can be a complex task. But understanding where these rules come from can help. The regulatory environment in drone usage is meant to protect the safety of airborne crafts, including civilian aeroplanes. Those new to drones do not realise that what they control is not a toy. Adverse weather and fading light conditions can lead to near collisions, crashes or equipment failure.

Regulatory compliance is important, and India has leapfrogged many countries by going for an all-digital platform, making the authorisation process (in theory at least) more seamless.

Come December 1, what can we expect to see? Definitely drone imagery in news broadcasts as well as in commercial entertainment.

on-field @ ipl

  • Rahat Kulshreshtha is Treasurer of the Drone Federation of India and Founder of Quidich Innovation Labs, a Mumbai-based drone company (which won the contract this year to take drone footage of the Indian Premier League). “The lack of regulation was a very uncomfortable place to be for everyone,” he says. “This is the first step towards a much larger drone ecosystem. They are not the easiest things to regulate — you are looking at privacy, safety, security. The current regulations are fairly comprehensive, but the authorities have called it ‘version one’ because they understand that there will be changes based on how things unfold.” Here, the enthusiast helps us decode drone terminology:
  • UIN: Unique Identification Number, which is similar to the license plate on your car, so you can identify every drone in the sky
  • Digital Sky: the online platform through which all applications, submissions and clearances will be done
  • UAOP: Unmanned Aircraft Operator Permit, the equivalent of your driver’s license. It allows an individual to be qualified enough to fly the drone by requiring minimum amounts of training. It will be valid for five years from the date of issue.
  • Zones: Red zones are no-fly areas (which include regions close to airports, national borders and military bases); yellow zones require approvals before flying, and green zones are unrestricted.
  • Categories: the drones are classified into five categories based on weight. They are: Nano (250 grams or less), micro, small, medium and large (heavier than 150 kg). Permissions and restrictions vary based on the category.

Nature and wildlife conservation, archaeology, research on maritime ecosystems, desertification and urban development — all these efforts also stand to benefit.

Expect adrenaline lovers to use drones to capture feats of endurance and adventures. Entities like Indian Railways may also use the devices to check infrastructure conditions or damage, and over time, public-private partnerships can produce drone-based data to help with, for instance, traffic flows and population movement.

Ways of seeing

Not unlike mobile phones today, drones will, sooner than we expect, become just another device to capture the world around us. Citizens, buying them in the thousands, will use them in ways that will collectively add to the perspectives in the public domain on social media platforms, as well as create memories for family and friends with stunning views only possible with aerial flight.

Leonardo da Vinci said “for once you have tasted flight you will walk the Earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you will long to return”. Drones allow us, as mere humans, to take flight and go where just a few years ago, only our imaginations would have dared wander.

Sanjana Hattotuwa is a Senior Researcher at the Centre for Policy Alternatives, Sri Lanka, and the Founding Editor of Groundviews.org

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