India proposes new more relaxed drone rules and more automated Digital Sky UTM system

India’s Civil Aviation Ministry on 15 July issued its updated Drone Rules 2021 for public consultation in a move generally seen to be a major relaxation of previously restrictive regulations. Deadline for comments is 5 August 2021. Among the proposals, new drone corridors will be developed for cargo deliveries and a drone promotion council will be set up to facilitate a business-friendly regulatory regime.

The new rules will see the transformation of the Digital Sky UTM platform to a single-window online system, with minimal human interface and most permissions self-generated. An airspace map, with colours delineating different airspace classes, will be made available. According to the proposed rules:

“The airspace map for drone operations shall be designed to be programmatically accessible through a machine readable Application Programming Interface (API) and interactive so that drone pilots will be able to plot their proposed flight plan and easily identify the zone(s) within which it falls so as to assess whether or not they need to make an application for prior approval.

Requirement of prior permission. – No person shall operate a drone in a red zone or yellow zone without prior permission.

Mandatory pre-flight verification of zonal restrictions. – Before commencing a drone operation, a drone pilot shall mandatorily verify the digital sky platform for any notification or restriction applicable to drone operations in the intended area of operation.

Dynamic nature of zoning: (1) The Central Government may update the airspace map on digital sky platform for drone operations from time to time to change the status of an area from one zone to another. (2) Any such change shall come into effect no sooner than seven days after the date of such update.

Temporary red zone. – (1) If there is an urgent need to temporarily prohibit drone flights in a specified area, the concerned State Government, Union Territory Administration or law enforcement agency may declare a temporary red zone over such specified area, for a period not exceeding 48 hours at a time, by notifying it through the digital sky platform and highlighting it on the airspace map. (2) The temporary red zone shall be declared by an officer not below the rank of Superintendent of Police or its equivalent. Such officer shall endeavour to keep the size of the temporary red zone reasonable and not excessive. (3) The digital sky platform shall endeavour to inform, through electronic means, holders of unique identification number within a distance of five kilometre from the perimeter of the temporary red zone of such a restriction, provided that the lack of receipt of such information shall not absolve a drone pilot of the responsibility to verify the zonal restrictions on the digital sky platform before commencing a drone operation.”

According to India’s Business Standards news portal:

“Under the new rules, the approvals for unique authorisation number, unique prototype identification number, certificate of conformance, certificate of maintenance, import clearance, acceptance of existing drones, operator permit, authorisation of R&D organisation, student remote pilot licence, remote pilot instructor authorisation, drone port authorisation etc are abolished. (The) number of forms have been reduced from 25 to six. The ministry said the fee have been reduced to nominal levels and there is no linkage with the size of the drone.

“In the R&D space, no pilot licence is required for micro drones (for non-commercial use), nano drone and for R&D organisations. Restriction on drone operations by foreign-owned companies registered in India has also been removed.

“Under new rules, coverage of drones under Drone Rules, 2021 is increased from 300 kg to 500 kg. This will cover drone taxis also. All drone training and testing will be carried out by an authorised drone school. The maximum penalty under Drone Rules, 2021 reduced to Rs 1 lakh. This shall, however, not apply to penalties in respect of violation of other laws.”

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