Bangalore. 18 February 2019. In the recent months, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones have caused great havoc in critical and sensitive areas across the world. Drones were behind the severe disruptions to commercial airline flight schedules over the Christmas weekend at Gatwick and later at Heathrow airports in the UK.

In an interview to ADU Sai Pattabiram, CEO and Founder of Shree Sai Aerotech Innovations, speaks about the extent of the problem posed by illegal drones in India and the measures the authorities need to take to curb China-made drone proliferation.

ADU. How serious is the threat from Chinese drones?

SP. Chinese manufacturers have a stranglehold on global drone manufacturing. Chinese companies have been dumping the sensitive Dual Use Technology Products by the millions, taking advantage of the fact that regulators across the world did not have any regulatory framework in place to counter or control illegal drones. As a result, there has been an alarming increase in number of drones over the years. The current ratio of drones to civilian airlines is around 600:1 and the drone population is expected to at least double in just three years.  With such high number of drones flitting in our airspace, it is inevitable that they would cross paths with airliners more often than they did earlier.

ADU. What is the drone situation in India?    

SP. India is one of the many countries where imported, predominantly Chinese drones are being used by both civilians and defence forces. There are currently an estimated 5 lakh such drones operating mostly illegally, which pose tangible threats to civilian air traffic, airports and strategic defence assets. There is also the risk of discreet data acquisition and spying by such drones, as has been the experience with Chinese companies ZTE & Huawei, which are now facing multi-nation bans. Also, it becomes all the more risky because of the fact that the defence forces are using commercial off-the-shelf drones at strategic defence installations.

ADU. What should India do to curb the looming drone threat?

SP. The very threat is an opportunity for the Indian policymakers, regulators and the industry to come together and find solutions to the problems, which could be implemented for both India and also for the other countries across the globe.

The questionable actions of the Chinese in proliferating this dual use technology and the trust deficit they have in other areas like telecom allows India to leverage its high credibility in the field of Information Technology (IT) to develop an ‘Indian Drone Ecosystem ‘as a credible alternative to the Chinese at a global level. Formulating policies for creation of a strong drone ecosystem in India has the potential to position Indian manufacturing as a leader, not only in the Indian proposed global drone alliance and ecosystem but also to add significantly by way of industry 4.0 critical technologies.

ADU. What are your suggestions for the policymakers and the regulator?

SP. Policymakers need to focus their actions on two fronts. Firstly, structure commercial drone usage by corporates and organizations through imposition of restrictions on individual commercial use, except for low-end applications like drone photography and videography of events. Secondly, sector specific policies should be created to address the operational requirements of the stakeholders. Lastly and most importantly, establish and support the “Made in India” drone industry through policy intervention.

Regulators should focus on creating a regulatory framework to make operations of NPNT-compliant and certified devices mandatory. This will facilitate tracking and monitoring of drone operations through a portal similar to the already functional tracking and monitoring portal of the Ministry of Road Transport & Highways (MORTH) Vahan.  This will also enable segregation of existing illegal drone users and for setting up of ‘air-fence’ systems around airports and strategic notified locations.

ADU. What will be the industry’s role in this?

SP. The industry should support the cause by manufacturing only the regulatory complaint NPNT-equipped drones and tracking systems. Indian drone manufacturers should supply the Indian defence forces with secure drones to meet their requirement of low-cost drones, a need which is currently being fulfilled by the use of commercial off-the-shelf Chinese-origin drones like those made by the DJI. By supporting and working closely with the regulators and Indian defence forces, Indian manufacturers can access the global potential offered for such products to control the use of this deeply proliferated dual-use technology.