Last month, India’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation (“DGCA”) published draft guidelines (“Guidelines”) as a basis for regulating the civil use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (“UAS”), more commonly called drones. The proposed regulations state that “operations of civil unmanned aircraft in controlled airspace are restricted,” though this is India’s first step to permit the use of UAS in the national airspace.

Currently, only the government is permitted the use of drones for military purposes in India. Nevertheless, UAS are becoming increasingly popular in India and are readily available on the internet. They have been enthusiastically adopted mostly by movie studios, real estate companies and wedding planners who are using drones to capture panoramic views and otherwise difficult to capture aerial shots. This despite a ban imposed in 2014 by the DGCA on the civil and commercial use of drones. The ban was met with considerable opposition with several industries making a case that drones can be used effectively and safely in a variety of scenarios. In the preamble to the Guidelines, the DGCA acknowledges the constructive uses of drones in several areas such as for monitoring of critical infrastructure such as power plants, ports and pipelines, for aerial mapping, which is particularly useful in agriculture and wildlife assessment and for assessing damage after natural calamities among others. As a result, the Indian industry, including companies with industrial licenses to manufacture UAS, have expressed their interest to use drones in those applications.

Among the most noteworthy recommendations, the Guidelines seek to regulate the use of drones for civil applications by licensing the operator and the UAS intended for civil use. They classify drones as Micro (less than 2 kilograms), Mini (between 2 and 20 kilograms), Small (between 20 and 150 kilograms) and Large (greater than 150 kilograms). The Guidelines propose a two-part framework that would include registration and operational requirements. Registration requirements will involve an operator seeking authorization in the form of an Unmanned Aircraft Operator Permit (“UAOP”) from the DGCA. Comments to the Guidelines are due by May 21, 2016 and the final policy is expected at the end of the year.

Operational requirements. The Guidelines propose to restrict areas such as nuclear stations and military facilities, within a 30kms-radius from New Delhi’s centre or within 50 kms from India’s international borders. If adopted, UAS will have to fly with a 500-meters-visual line of sight, during daylight when ground visibility is 5 kms and surface winds do not exceed 20 knots. The Guidelines do not indicate if a more comprehensive list of restricted airspaces will include other strategic locations or if the operational requirements are applicable to all categories of drones. Finally, the DGCA will not require an UAOP for UAS operations under 200 feet above ground level in uncontrolled airspace. Further model aircraft, described as UAS without payload and meant solely for recreational purposes flying below 200 feet in uncontrolled airspace will also be exempt from requiring an UAOP registration. The Guidelines appear to suggest that permission for operating exempt categories of UAS may nonetheless be required from local authorities.

Registration requirements. The DGCA has proposed the use of a Unique Identification Number (“UIN”) that users would need to obtain for each drone and a DGCA permit for all drone operations at or above 200 feet above ground level in uncontrolled airspace. Along with seeking an UAOP from the DGCA to conduct civil operations of drones, the operator will also have to file a flight plan and seek approvals from the local Air Traffic Services (“ATS”) and local district commissioner. The UAOP would be valid for two years with a possibility of renewal if security clearance is obtained. Only an Indian citizen or a corporate organization that is registered and has its principal place of business in the country, whose chairman and at least two-thirds of its director are citizens of India, and whose substantial ownership and effective control vest with Indian nationals would be allowed to apply for an UIN.

Comparison with the recent U.S. developments. With these guidelines, India has followed the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) path, which has already granted over 5,000 Section 333 exemptions to allow commercial operators to use UAS in the national airspace.

Unlike India, the FAA makes a distinction between commercial and recreational use of Model Aircraft and small UAS (“sUAS”) – weighting less than 55 pounds. Currently, flying a UAS for commercial purposes in the U.S. requires a Section 333 exemption. A grant of exemption requires to meet the Section 333 requirements and a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (“COA”). In addition, the UAS must be registered with the FAA and the pilot must obtain an FAA airman certificate. The FAA grants a COA to sUAS operators who fly at or below 400 feet, operates during daytime Visual Flight Rules conditions, within a visual line of sight of the pilots and stay within a certain distance from sensitive areas such as airports and heliports.

The FAA is currently developing rules and policies, and issuing historic decisions to allow for a more flexible use of drones for commercial applications. An FAA rulemaking for sUAS is expected at the end of June. The rule, much like the Indian proposed regulations, would limit flights to daylight and visual-line-of-sight operations, and would address height restrictions, use of visual observer, registration and operational requirements. Last week, the FAA announced the creation of a new broad-based advisory committee to provide advice on key unmanned aircraft integration issues.

Meanwhile, the FAA further demonstrates its willingness to be more flexible by issuing unprecedented decisions and policies. For example, the FAA recently raised the “blanket” altitude authorization from 200 feet to 400 feet to operate sUAS without seeking a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (“COA”). Last month, the FAA approved the first nighttime operation for commercial UAS under heightened safety requirements and monitoring.

Conclusion. The U.S. is moving fast to integrate UAS in the national airspace, paving the way for other countries with a high demand from local industries like India, to walk in their footsteps. Pushed by industry, which is keen to exploit the various UAS applications, India has made an important step toward integrating drones in the national airspace. India’s approach to regulate UAS is similar to the U.S., yet adjusted to the current framework and needs of the country. Given the rapid growth of India’s industry and population, and the multitude of possibilities that UAS offer, these new rules could have a significant impact on the development of sUAS in the country.