India’s rapidly rising drone industry

It requires, among other things, operators to register their drones and seek clearance online every time they want to fly. The key consideration was security, and understandably so, given the military and surveillance potential drones hold.

The plan sounded great on paper. Map the country into three zones:

Red—No-fly zones
Green—Flying zones
Amber—Zones requiring special permissions

And regulate drone flying accordingly. The rules, derived under the Aircraft Act of 1943, were enforced by December 2018. Drones also needed another feature—essentially, a kill switch—which would allow for the government’s vision of ‘no permission, no takeoff’ (NPNT).

Planning and executing

While the CAR didn’t lack in terms of vision, execution was a whole other problem. The digital portal required for automatic approvals—an online platform called DigitalSky—is still not ready. Neither have the maps been properly demarcated. While a beta version was launched, it was pointless in the absence of a zone map.

The beta version was supposed to be an interim measure to provide the digital permission, said an executive working closely with the Drone Federation of India (DFI). Industry executives and drone companies The Ken spoke to have been told by officials that DigitalSky will only be operational in another six to 12 months.

In the absence of this digital infrastructure, drone operators were hamstrung—flouting these rules could lead to punishment as severe as imprisonment. While India has an estimated 40,000-60,000 drones, according to industry sources, the only way to continue in business is what Quidich did—lobby regulators incessantly.

In the end, Quidich did get the exemptions it needed to operate during the IPL. However, according to an industry executive and a government official aware of the matter, this was an arduous process. It involved phone calls to everyone, from the Board of Cricket Control in India (BCCI) to the Prime Minister’s Office, and the aviation ministry.

The system wasn’t always this broken. In fact, prior to CAR, operators could simply seek permissions offline. It was antiquated and cumbersome, sure. But it was still doable. The Pandora’s box, however, was opened when tech policy think tank iSpirt, as well as industry players, joined hands with the Indian government to take this modern technology into the digital age.

Skylark, a drone services company, came up with a testing module for NPNT. One of Quidich’s founders, Tanuj Bhojwani, would eventually join iSpirt after leaving the company, spearheading the think tank’s efforts with regard to shaping drone policy.

”If the government doesn’t build its own capacity, it will always be dependent on the external bodies, or people with no or limited expertise in drones,” says an industry expert who has worked closely on drone regulations, referring to the involvement of iSpirt in the entire drone policy. “Else you are simply betting on the intent of this external organisation,” the expert adds.

Interestingly, both iSpirt and Skylark representatives met with the world’s largest drone manufacturer, China’s DJI, to bring them in line with CAR regulations shortly before the policy came into effect. However, the Chinese drone major—which accounts for 80% of India’s commercial drones and two-thirds of drones globally—was unwilling to comply with the NPNT regime.

DJI’s refusal to play ball meant the vast majority of India’s drones fall foul of the law, effectively dealing a body blow to the space. The entire drone industry, which was already in just its nascency, shrunk after CAR, multiple drone companies and policy experts told The Ken.

Owning the drone policy

The drone industry is replete with examples of companies struggling as a result of CAR. Mumbai-based drone-mapping services company Indrones is one such. In 2019, it bagged a project worth Rs 1 crore (~$140,000) from the government of Punjab. The company waited in vain for four months for a CAR exemption. The contract was eventually scrapped.

While Quidich may have sorted out its IPL exemptions, the requirements imposed by CAR have led the company to focus more on overseas markets. “It’s easier to do business abroad,” admits Rahat Kulsheshtra, Quidich’s CEO. While even personal lobbying was no guarantee for permissions in India, Kulsheshtra says that they weren’t physically required to obtain approvals in other countries.

“The intention was fabulous,” says Anirudh Rastogi, founder of law firm Ikigai Law. However, he adds, CAR was too ambitious. “Instead of taking incremental steps, and building capacity of the regulators, it wanted compliance for an innovative policy from day one,” he explains. Rastogi has been closely following the drone policy formulation since 2015-16, and is currently advising the Drone Federation of India.