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New Drone Rules: A mature regulatory regime for drone-based deliveries

For drone delivery to become a reality, a permissive regulatory regime is a prerequisite.

By Anirudh Rastogi, Aman Taneja, and Rahul Krishna

Delivery through drones is expected to significantly cut logistics costs and is touted to be one of the most significant commercial uses cases for drones. A number of companies across the world have either started drone delivery or are piloting such projects. Recently, major Indian food delivery brands such as Swiggy, Zomato, and Dunzo have begun trials for drone-based delivery as well. For drone delivery to become a reality, a permissive regulatory regime is a prerequisite. The Drone Rules, 2021 appear to encourage drone deliveries, however, there seems to be an intent to go slow; to understand the technology better before notifying any in-depth regulations. This keeps in line with the recent approach of the government to regulating drones – taking on-board industry feedback and regulating iteratively.

The crucial regulatory elements for drone delivery are permission for Beyond Visual Line of Sight or BVLOS operations, which mean that drones can be flown without the remote pilot having visual contact with the drone, and permission to carry and drop payloads from drones. But the Drone Rules make no mention of BVLOS operations or the dropping of payloads from drones. These issues are a notable omission from the rules, especially considering the dialogue about them by the Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) and their inclusion in previous drafts of the regulations.

How the Rules facilitate drone delivery

The Drone Rules increase the maximum permissible all-up weight, the weight of the drone as well as the payload, to 500 kilograms, making it easier for companies to trial mass deliveries and deliver heavier objects. The restriction on payload contained in the rules is limited to prohibiting the carriage of arms or munitions and dangerous goods. Dangerous goods are defined in the Aircraft (Carriage of Dangerous Goods) Rules, 2003, as ‘articles or substances which are capable of posing a risk to health, safety, property or the environment’. The rules also note that the Central Government will release a policy framework on Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management which will include the framework for developing corridors for cargo delivery through drones. Finally, in reducing the compliance requirements and security clearances needed, they ease the burden on drone operators in general.

The previous draft of drone regulations, the Unmanned Aircraft System Rules, 2021 (UAS Rules), contained provisions that outlined how operators may conduct drone deliveries. The regulations allowed the Director-General of Civil Aviation to make rules for allowing payloads to be carried on certain drones and specifying procedures for dropping articles from drones. The regulations listed a permit that could be obtained by commercial drone operators that appeared to allow carriage of goods and BVLOS operations subject to the rules specified by the Director-General. These rules were criticised by the industry for being too onerous and practically infeasible for allowing drone delivery. The government appears to have taken on industry feedback and decided that they need more information to create effective regulation for drone deliveries, not including these onerous requirements from the UAS Rules in the latest Drone Rules.

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Experiments to understand the nuances of delivery via drones

To understand the nuances of BVLOS operations, the government in May 2019 had issued a notice for expressions of interest to undertake experimental BVLOS flights including delivery testing. In May 2021, the government permitted 20 consortiums to begin trialing BVLOS operations under the earlier notice for expressions of interest. Additionally, the government had granted permission for trial delivery operations for delivery of vaccines to the Government of Telangana in May 2021 and to the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (IITM) and the National Health Mission (NHM) in Maharashtra for delivering healthcare essentials in August 2021.

Initially, the permissions contained extensive requirements on safety features such as geo-fencing and 360-degree collision avoidance. It required the operator to file a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) to the Director-General of Civil Aviation and to take clearance from the local Air Traffic Controller, the Indian Air Force, and Ministry of Home Affairs. The Telangana government trials were not allowed to begin because the abovementioned requirements had not been met. However, reports suggest that in September 2021, subsequent to the notification of the new rules, the Central Government relaxed some of these requirements under the new regime. These relaxations have allowed for the Telangana Government to begin the trial. The Central Government will likely develop a policy on drone delivery based on the learnings obtained from these trials, making it a better informed and more practical policy than the one in the UAS Rules.

In keeping with the approach taken to drafting the Drone Rules, 2021, the Central Government has acted in an adaptable manner with regard to drone deliveries. Rather than amend the regulations on BVLOS operations and payloads drops from the UAS Rules, the government has decided to ensure that its policies are road-tested and can help create a viable ecosystem for drone delivery. Effectively, the government has created a regulatory sandbox for BVLOS trials through the exemptions granted which have minimal compliance requirements. Through this approach, the government can identify the nuances relating to safety for delivery operations and create technological solutions for the same. Thus, in deciding to be patient and seeking more information, the government has allowed itself more time to develop a practical policy on drone delivery that incorporates learnings from the industry, representing a mature approach to technology regulation.

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Anirudh Rastogi, Aman Taneja, and Rahul Krishna are Managing Partner, Senior Associate, and Consultant, respectively, at Ikigai Law, a technology-focused law firm. Views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of MediaNama. 

Further reading on drone policies in India:

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