One-tenth of the drones certified, say industry sources and point to high fees and cumbersome restrictions
While industry sources believe there are as many as 700,000 drones in India, the bulk of them made in China or assembled with components from China, barely one-tenth of them are officially certified
In May 2014, a drone was used to make a pizza delivery in Mumbai’s Lower Parel. Questions ranging from the absence of police permission and security concerns to privacy issues and the absence of rules governing the use of unmanned aerial vehicles in India were raised. The pizzeria management was issued a notice and let off with a warning.
Eight years later in May 2022, Prime Minister Narendra Modi kicked off a Bharat Drone Mahotsava or Drone Festival of India at Pragati Maidan, Delhi.
Efforts to regulate drones had begun with the appointment of Amber Dubey as joint secretary in the Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) in September 2019. Dubey, till then a partner at KPMG heading aerospace and defence, was brought in on a three year contract by the Modi government.
To the credit of Dubey and MoCA and start-ups developing drones (221 in February 2022), the entire ecosystem has witnessed a sea-change with a year-on-year growth of 34.4%.
India saw the first drone census conducted in January 2020. The voluntary disclosure drive saw over 2,500 Ownership Acknowledge Numbers (OANs) being issued initially. However, to date, just about 80,000 drone owners of the 7,00,000 believed to exist in India have applied for registration, say industry stakeholders.
The requirement of drones to have a type certificate and a GST invoice being compulsory for registration is said to be the reason for non-disclosure. At least 90% of these drones are of Chinese make and won’t count for approval. The result is that though the actual number runs into a few lakhs, on the books, it is still less than a lakh.
DJI Drones of China, which is under US sanctions and recently in controversy over Ukrainian drones being tracked by Russia, has a significant number of its drones in India, which in February banned import of all drones except for R&D, defence and security purposes.
Currently, drone operations are governed by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) under the Civil Aviation Requirements (CAR), which regulates the use of drones and provides the process for obtaining Unique Identification Number and Unmanned Aircraft Operator Permit (UAOP).
Drones in India are separated into five categories – Nano (less than or equal to 250 grams), Micro (above 250 grams but less than or equal to 2 kg), Small (more than 2 kg but less than or equal to 25 kg), Medium (drones greater than 25 kg and less than or equal to 150 kg) and Large (above 150 kg).
While the nano drones do not require permissions and remote licensing of operators or drone pilots, the micro-drones are exempted from permissions when used for any non-commercial activity. All other categories need certified operators.
Ankit Kumar, chief executive of Skye Air Mobility, says there is increasing awareness and appreciation of “cost-efficiency, time saved and technological advantages by using drones”. Ninety percent of Indian skies are now open to drone operators.
The rest of the areas as specified by the Unmanned Aircraft System Rules, 2021 are Vijay Chowk in New Delhi, areas around strategic institutions notified by the Ministry of Home Affairs, secretariats in state capitals, and eco-sensitive zones.
Drones are also barred within 5 km of international airports at Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Kolkata, Bengaluru and Hyderabad, and at a distance of 3 km from the perimeter of any civil, private, or defence airport in the country.
Further, drones cannot be flown within a distance of 25 km from international borders, the Line of Control, and in the vicinity of military installations or such areas unless specific written clearances are obtained.
“Drones in India are available from Rs. 12,000 for hobby drones to Rs. 5,00,000 for those that are of industrial-grade,” shares Dhriti Shah, who was in the first batch of DGCA approved drone pilots in India. Shah informs that most drones in India fall into the micro category because it is permitted for commercial use. The rest above the micro category, she says, are all industrial-grade drones.
For beginners, as of date, not a single drone in India is type certified. Costs of a type certification remain high starting from Rs.10,00,000 for a particular drone type for which the Quality Council of India (QCI) is the certifying authority. Industry observers also point out that while many drone manufacturers, who largely assemble imported components, were there at Pragati Maidan, there were hardly any Indian component manufacturers.
DGCA has approved 23 Remote Pilot Training Organisations to train drone controllers. These organisations conduct courses ranging from 3 days to 24 days. This includes ground and simulator training, practical flying, solo flying, and also exposure to emergency procedures.
It is estimated that there are about 2000 to 5000 trained drone controllers. Civil Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia claims India would need one lakh drone controllers in the next few years.
Shah points out that while Make in India initiative has a minimum 60% ceiling on domestic components, for drones the limit is just 40% and as a result, a larger number of components are imported and not manufactured here. “While the flight controllers are now being trained here, India-made motors are still at a nascent stage of development,” she says.
The cost of getting trained in operating drones is also not easy on the pocket and needs government intervention. Training for drone pilots costs anywhere between Rs. 30,000 and a lakh of rupees. Meanwhile, the government is offering subsidies to promote use of drones in agriculture.
Shah sees a rising demand for drones in agriculture, land mapping, mining, and other industries. “You cannot be 100% dependent on the machine. One should also know what you are flying, and should also be able to fly manually,” she says.
The deployment of drones in various areas is also giving a boost to job opportunities, opening up avenues for certified drone pilots, with salaries starting from Rs. 35,000 and above.
The Union Minister for Civil Aviation Jyotiraditya Scindia estimates that the Indian drone industry will be worth Rs. 15,000 crore by 2026.
But then the government needs to fix the issue of type rating, and domestic manufacturing to bring down costs and ensure training fees are reduced.
(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)