The UAS sector holds tremendous opportunities and if unleashed has the potential to transform many of the sectors and could contribute 4-5 % to India’s GDP, due to the multiplier effect. UAS, commonly known as a drone, started off from being used for defence purposes are now increasingly used in the civilian space. Developments in the fields of artificial intelligence, automation, robotics, miniaturisation, materials science, thermal imaging, etc. have enabled diverse civilian and commercial application of drones in sectors like agriculture, power, infrastructure, mining and telecom to undertake various activities with significant improvements in efficiency and cost.
The global market is witnessing a boom despite several concerns relating to its potential use as a weapon, proprietary and privacy infringement. The future holds many new avenues for the use of UAS as they are expected to replace 80% of operations presently carried out by manned aircraft. As per NITI Aayog estimates, the Indian market for UAS will be US $50 billion over the next 15 years.
Going by global trends, the commercial sector is likely to exceed the demands of the military and government sectors. In addition, there is a booming market for mini and micro UAS for recreational purposes. Apart from the basic system there would also be demand for a variety of sub systems. The potential is enormous for the growth of the indigenous electronic sector and software industry.
Besides manufacturing of drones, a second line of business is of service providers offering the UAS for the entire spectrum of remote sensing, surveillance and monitoring services. This is a transformational market for start-ups and entrepreneurs who are presently constrained by the lack of clarity on the use of UAS for commercial applications.
There is also scope for developing other services, including Surveys and Monitoring services; MRO, Upgrades and Life extension services; Logistics and communication services; Training and simulators; and Design and Engineering. Additional opportunities would present in the Air Traffic Management System for drone traffic. As the industry grows it is vitally important to simultaneously bring in a comprehensive ecosystem for the safe operation of drones and provide Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) solutions. This is a sector with substantial challenges and opportunities where Indian software engineers can contribute.
Also, security requirements would necessitate having Anti-Drone Systems, a new technology industry which is on the rise in response to fears over malicious use of drones by terrorists, enemy forces or even deliberate incursions into privacy. Anti-drone technology is rapidly evolving and offers an opportunity for Indian engineers.
Regulatory Regime Governing UAS industry
Recently, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) released the much-awaited policy for civil Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS), which will allow Indian operators to fly UAS during daytime and within visual line of sight (VLOS) in Indian airspace from December 1, 2018 onwards. Earlier there was an outright ban on the use of drones for commercial use.
As per the policy, all RPAS are required to obtain a Unique Identification Number (UIN) issued by the DGCA based on an elaborate procedure which enables identification and tracking of a UAS. There are other restrictions applicable to UAS based on their weight relating, to inter, alia airspace use, pre-flight conditions to be met, training of personnel, safety conditions, etc.
The RPAS Policy is a big step taken by the Indian Government towards regulating UAS and it will immensely benefit in areas such as aerial monitoring of agricultural and forest lands, safety inspections of oil and gas pipelines, railways lines, bridges etc., 3D geographic mapping, archaeological surveys, aerial photography, filming and journalism.
Many countries across the world are re-evaluating the drone legislation from restrictive to permissive to promote their UAS industry. India is the only country among are BRICS economies which does not permit to operate beyond visual line of sight (BVLOV). Exceptions to the constant visual line of sight (VLOS) requirement are possible with certain restrictions and pilot ratings in BRICS economies, except India.
The Indian operators are required to wait for the next version of the Indian RPAS policy which could permit BVLOS operations such as e-commerce, delivery of goods and more, ease the process of taking permissions from multiple government agencies for operating drones and promote foreign companies to operate drones in India
Under the ‘Make-in-India’ initiative we need to strengthen India’s capability and capacity for manufacturing of drones and reduce dependence on imports. Currently, less than five companies are manufacturing UAS in India and supplying to Defence Forces, CAPFs and State Police Forces. Between January 2001 and July 2018, approximately 36 Indian companies had applied for industrial licence from the DIPP to manufacture UAS in India. We also need to prepare a road-map on development of Anti-Drone technologies and Drone Air Traffic Control Systems.
The defence forces, being the largest customer for UAS, offer the best prospect for kick starting the UAS industry in India. However, piecemeal imports to meet individual service demands must be discontinued for indigenous UAS industry to grow. A high-level government committee to be constituted to determine the overall business volumes to drive the Make-in-India UAS campaign including its components and sub systems. This aggregation would include the requirements of the security forces under MHA, Railways, various PSUs etc. The ‘Make-in-India’ model for UAS could be structured on the lines of the existing highly successful Private Public Partnership Model for long term production, operation and maintenance of locomotives that has since been adopted by the Indian Railways.
In conclusion, we are at a stage where the UAS technology is far ahead of our thinking on laws for civilian usage of drones. We need to continuously streamline our drone policies and regulations, which could promote the growth of Indian UAS industry. Moreover, we need to identify new areas of application of UAS to various civilian uses, so that a cohesive and visionary action plan for adopting UAS for national asset monitoring, governance and commercial applications could be evolved.
The author is Chair, FICCI Homeland Security Committee.