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Drone traffic management: Privacy plays catch up in India’s drone automation plans

Provisions under India’s proposed data protection Bill will be followed for maintaining the privacy of individuals whose sensitive personal data has been captured by drones, a new discussion paper floated by the Civil Aviation Ministry said. However, the paper, which deals with automating and securing drone operations, was silent on the blanket exemptions available to government bodies from adhering to provisions under the bill, and whether there will be any additional safeguards around drone data collected and processed by law enforcement agencies.

This is significant, given that the government can potentially use drones for mass surveillance exercises, and citizens should be offered adequate safeguards against such practices. However, the discussion paper offers no such respite. Also, while the current draft of the data protection bill mandates consent be sought from people before collecting their sensitive data, the discussion paper does not explain how consent will be sought when drones are flown over hoards of people.

Not to forget, government agencies could deploy drones over protestors, as they have already done several times, and be exempt from adhering to provisions of the privacy bill by conducting surveillance under the guise of “public order”.

The Civil Aviation Ministry, on November 30, floated a discussion paper for a national unmanned aircraft system traffic management (UTM) policy. UTMs are essentially traffic management solutions for drones, akin to how airlines have an air traffic management system. The only difference is that UTMs automate the process of managing drone traffic in a given airspace. By means of this discussion paper, the government is taking a significant step into proposing processes to automate drone operations, while highlighting relevant stakeholders, and how they will integrate.

Govt will have unfettered, unprecedented control over drone data and ops

The paper offers a glimpse of the amount of control the government will eventually have over drones related data. In fact, the paper proposes to give government bodies unprecedented insight and control over drone operations in India, even when most of the processes are largely automated — data shared with the DigitalSky platform, a platform being built to handle automation requests, will be available to the government, including law enforcement and security agencies, at all times. As such, law enforcement and security agencies will be allowed access to real-time or historic information recorded by the DigitalSky platform, for any security, surveillance or counter drone purposes.

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The paper also allows the government to share drone data with private companies. “Whenever any data collected by drones is shared by a government agency with any non-government agency then such data shall not be shared further with any individual or entity without the permission from the government agency,” it said.

It is not to say that the paper doesn’t offer any respite for citizens’ privacy. The UTM ecosystem will make data about active drone operations available to the general public on a need-to-know basis. Citizens can also report issues if they may notice a particular drone is not flying as per recommended norms, or is in breach of their privacy.

Data localisation: The paper said that all the software and hardware systems hosting such data will have to be hosted in India, the policy document said. “It shall be ensured by the system owner that all types of data including user-provided, collected, generated, analysed and other similar data will reside in India and will not be accessed by any entity outside India,” it added.

Security agencies to have full access to drone ops, via DigitalSky

The DigitalSky platform is essentially expected to be backbone of all drone operations in the country, and will handle automated drone clearances, among other things. While it is not yet fully functional, it is planned to eventually connect with government agencies, security agencies, supplementary data providers (weather, terrain, etc.) and other relevant stakeholders.

“One of the primary functions of the DigitalSky Platform is to act as a seamless and automated communication channel between the UAS industry, regulators and other government stakeholders,” the discussion paper said. The DGCA can issue registrations and permits like Registration of a UAS, issuance of a Remote Pilot License, Issuance of Operator Permit, etc automatically through the DigitalSky Platform.

“DigitalSky Platform further becomes the central data archive for all flight permissions and flight logs. Security agencies and other relevant stakeholders can interface with the DigitalSky Platform to have complete, real-time, situational awareness for all UAS [drone] operations in India.” — from the National UTM policy discussion paper

Why do drones require UTMs?

A UTM is essentially an air traffic management system (similar to airplanes) for drones, except that the process is automated. It can detect real-time location of a drone, and has anti-collision warning systems so that drones flying in the same airspace can communicate with each other. On top of that, it will allow for real-time, or near-real-time communication between other drone pilots, DGCA, Airports Authority of India, and other stakeholders. The service will also automate drone flying permits from the DigitalSky platform.

UTMs will also collect a substantial amount of data in the process of ensuring drone flights, such as flight intents, and real-time telemetry, among other things, and share all the information with the DigitalSky platform (which is accessible by government agencies at all times).

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UTMs, according to the Ministry, can fit seamlessly in the current regulatory system and potentially make drones co-exist with airlines. Integrating drones with current air traffic management systems will require equipping drones with additional hardware, which is neither advisable nor feasible for several types of drones. UTMs, on the other hand, by virtue of being software-based solutions will allow control over a higher density of drones, without necessarily putting additional load on civil aviation operations.

The UTM ecosystem in India includes a set of distributed services, along with an overarching DigitalSky platform, and is built on a layered approach of information sharing and data exchange standards between drones, pilots, and pilots to the DigitalSky platform. These services are key to ensure secure drone flights, as they support receiving flight authorisation, real-time situational awareness, communication services, weather services, and deconfliction services.

The Ministry said that several companies that make UTM products, and the DigitalSky platform will work together using a published Data Exchange Standards. The policy document didn’t make it clear as to who would publish these data exchange standards.

Govt wants to compete with private UTM companies

The discussion paper said that the government will largely focus on regulatory intervention and oversight in the UTM ecosystem, and not on a full-fledged partnership with private UTM makers. However, at the same time, government-owned entities such as public sector undertakings are free to develop their own UTM solutions, and compete with the private industry. The paper also allows a public-private partnership to develop UTM solutions. As such, for any of these business models, “the regulatory control will still be with the Government, with adequate powers vested on various regulators under the central government”.

There is another way where the central government will directly compete with the private industry. The paper said that the DigitalSky platform will act as a UTM service provider for the entire Indian airspace, in order to ensure pan-India services. The government is even making a hard pitch to sell DigitalSky as a UTM player:

“[…]the DigitalSky platform would always be responsible for providing airspace mapping, approval, authorisation and other related services to various regulators and government authorities. It would also act as the single hub of all registry, flight information, constraint management, flight data management and discovery & synchronization services.” — from the National UTM policy discussion paper

The layer of the DigitalSky portal, which will function as an UTM, will be “directly accessible” to various government stakeholders, along with private entities. Multiple industry representatives that MediaNama spoke to said that DigitalSky getting into UTM services could be “potentially bad for their business”. One of them, speaking on the condition of anonymity said, “Hope the government does a bad job at this, like BSNL”.

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The govt’s idea of an automated airspace for drones

The paper majorly suggests that the core idea going forward — when UTMs become more common — will be to automate processes, which will eventually be managed by a “distributed set of actors”. This essentially means that the DGCA and AAI will continue to maintain their “regulatory authority” over certifying drones and managing the airspace, albeit in an automated way.

How the UTM ecosystem will look | Source: MoCA’s discussion paper

India dabbles with remote ID

As the density of drones in the Indian airspace increases, the ability to identify and track hem will become crucial, the paper said, suggesting that real-time identification and tracking of drones will enable sharing the identity of a particular drone, and its location to other airspace owners and people on the ground. This will especially allow law enforcement agencies to identify and locate drones, it added. Interestingly, Chinese drone maker, DJI, in an exclusive interview to MediaNama had said that the government should consider remote-ID for drone identification.

Drones would be able to share their identity over:

  • Bluetooth/Wi-Fi: These signals can be received and displayed by a mobile phone, via an app. However, the operational range of this protocol — 100 metres — will be limited, owing to Bluetooth and Wi-Fi standards, which is “significantly low” for identifying drones. Drones used by intelligence agencies however, can possibly use this protocol given the sensitivity of their operations.
  • The internet: Civilian drone operations will have to share their identity over the internet. “In this case, stakeholders such as law enforcement agencies, airspace users and the general public connect with a UTM Service Provider to access information about active UAS [drone] flights in their area of interest using a web-based or a mobile application,” the paper said. However, this protocol has its limitations in places with no network connectivity.
    • It is worth noting that companies in India have plans to use this particular protocol. MediaNama was the first to report that Vodafone Idea has partnered with Zomato and a few other companies to experiment with drone deliveries.

This is the first version of this discussion paper, and comments to it can be sent until December 30 at kameshwar.mishra@gov.in. 

*Update: The headline was updated at 3:03 pm.

MediaNama has prepared an exhaustive guide to the drone industry in India, encompassing regulations, use cases, concerns around privacy and surveillance, and the way forward for the industry. The guide is available here

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