Time to use drones effectively

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Time to use drones effectively

Saturday, 05 December 2020 | Manavendra Prasad

An application-based solution can spur a varied usage of the Unmanned Aircraft Systems and help in mapping land use

The Government of India recently announced the launch of the ‘SVAMITVA’ (Survey of Villages and Mapping with Improvised Technology in Village Areas) scheme to provide an integrated asset verification solution for rural India. Under this scheme, land will be demarcated with the help of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) or in common parlance drones. Six States have signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Survey of India for drone-mapping of rural areas and the implementation of ‘SVAMITVA.’ The States of Punjab and Rajasthan have signed another MoU for the establishment of the CORS (Continuously Operating Reference Stations) network to assist in future drone-flying activities. This is just another example of the utility of drones and how their usage across a wide spectrum of activities, from education and training, law and order management, to disaster relief and geospatial mapping can be a force multiplier.

There is clearly immense awareness in the Government about the capability of drones, keeping in view their recent use during the anti-locust drives and also in the management of the ongoing COVID pandemic. Drones were used for tracking violators of restrictions, monitoring of the lockdown, decontamination of hotspots and so on. They have also been used by Public Sector Undertakings (PSUs) for inspection of their vital property and for geographic information system (GIS) mapping like oil pipeline monitoring and transit system planning. The list could go on.The Ministry of Civil Aviation has been proactively facilitating drone usage by providing fast track approvals through the exemption route for these critical public projects. Numerous organisations have received this relief and the usage was facilitated by conditional exemptions under the Aircraft Rules, 1937.

Rules and regulations: It is, however, odd that the UAS industry still lacks robust rules and regulations that allow rapid growth of swift innovation and high efficiency, while keeping in mind potential safety and security issues. The first set of drone regulations was notified in 2018, which introduced a unique concept of “no-permission, no-takeoff’ (NPNT) through the Digital Sky Platform. However, the latter is yet to see the light of the day. The continuous delay in its launch is affecting legal drone operations in the country.

In June 2020, the Ministry of Civil Aviation released the draft UAS rules 2020 for public feedback. It is apprehended that if the final version is not dramatically different from the draft version, we are likely to have onerous compliance requirements and a difficult regulatory environment.

Getting it going: A computer programme that works like a modern day app and has a quickly deployable software that helps in bringing in greater efficiency could solve many issues. As the Digital Sky Platform may still take time for full operationalisation, having an application-based solution for day-to-day drone permission could help the industry overcome the current flux. An application-based tool could be the solution that catalyses the UAS industry, spur usage and unshackle growth.

The app solution has multiple advantages as it will not require either additional hardware or software for the UAS. The application can be made available on the personal computer and can be used to generate regular approvals, based on the location, time, and date of operation. This will also help Indian manufacturers of UAS to export their ware to other countries. Additionally, this solution can be effortlessly integrated with the currently-available version of the Digital Sky Platform. Perhaps it is time to look at ways to simplify the system that has tremendous benefits in the future and put a stop to ad hocism in the industry.

Global experience: It is worth noting that the American Federal Aviation Administration’s Low Altitude Authorisation and Notification Capability (LAANC) uses desktop applications and mobile apps to automate the application and approval process for airspace authorisations. Requests are checked against multiple airspace data sources such as UAS Facility Maps, Special Use Airspace data, Airports and Airspace Classes, as well as Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs) and Notices to Airmen (NOTAMs). If approved, pilots can receive their authorisation in near-real time.This has aided commercial operators by introducing predictability around the approval process, which has led to more business opportunities for them. LAANC has also helped the regulators address the challenge of resource constraints, which was otherwise making it hard for them to keep track of operations, by reducing or replacing manual approvals. While there is a need to have solutions customised for India, given its diversity of governance standards, economic development and of geography, the country should not hesitate in benefitting from the experience of other nations.

(The writer is public policy consultant, Chase India)

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