The Mumbai Police banned all flights by drones and light flying objects, as reported by the Times of India (ToI) dated March 1st, 2017. The ToI piece also dwelled on the impact of this order on the drone-based educational activities conducted by three engineering colleges in Mumbai including IIT Bombay. The concerned police officer has been reported to be very emphatic about the need for such a strict action in view of the security threat posed by the drones. As I remember, there were reports of suspicious drone activity near the airports in the country. There have been reports of terrorist sleeper cells, and terrorists have demonstrated their tech-savvy-ness earlier. So, the perception of the security threat is legitimate and valid.
The drone is a great example of a disruptive technology, to use the term coined by Clayton M. Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor. It was among twelve disruptive technologies highlighted by the McKinsey Global Institute. Simply put, a disruptive technology is a new technology that unexpectedly and severely disturbs the existing techno-economic regime. Such a disruption could have positive as well as negative implications. But, as indicated above, a disruptive technology, like the drone, could also have disruptive effects on the society at large. However, while acknowledging the negative implications related to security, I would like to focus on the positive implications of such technologies.
Simply put, a disruptive technology is a new technology that unexpectedly and severely disturbs the existing techno-economic regime.
Drones have been used for diverse purposes, apart from the educational and research purposes mentioned in the beginning. We know that many service sector companies are working on using drone for delivering their products. Some social service organisations have used drones to deliver medicines in the mountainous, remote regions of Africa. Farmers in the US and Australia have used drones for crop surveys and field analysis, even on a daily basis. Architects and the real estate sector have used drones to survey and map buildings. These uses are just the tip of the iceberg. With their versatile and flexible flying capabilities, near-autonomous operations, different payload capabilities, low costs, off-the-shelf availability, and immense user-friendliness, drones could be used to serve diverse social or developmental objectives, especially in the context of a country like India.
The peculiar Indian situation presents a great range of opportunities for using drones for positive or beneficial social and developmental purposes, including education and research. The technological capabilities possessed even by the local level technical workforce in India makes it possible to easily absorb and disseminate the technology widely. The economic situation in the country makes it affordable to use the technology on a wide scale by a variety of sectors and sections of society. The societal (social and governance) challenges before the country presents diverse opportunities for the beneficial use of technology. Most importantly, the talent––capable of the out-of-the-box or jugad thinking––available in commercial and NGO sectors makes it possible to use this technology for innovative applications for diverse purposes. For example, in addition to delivery of goods, drones could be used by various companies and even small entrepreneurs for providing various other services based on commercially valuable data and information, such as that on city traffic, parking availability, or air pollution levels. Drones could be used for patrolling of pipelines, railway tracks, and transmission lines. A variety of official and civil society watchdog agencies can use drones to collect information on illegal mining, illegal forest cutting, illegal construction activity, and illegal release of pollutants in air or rivers. Drones could be extremely useful for official and civil society agencies in responding to natural or man-made disasters or in conflict situations, especially for critical rescue and relief operations.
With their versatile and flexible flying capabilities, near-autonomous operations, different payload capabilities, low costs, off-the-shelf availability, and immense user-friendliness, drones could be used to serve diverse social or developmental objectives, especially in the context of a country like India.
My case here is that we, as a society, cannot afford to treat and dismiss drones merely as a security threat. I would reiterate here that I do consider the security threat as legitimate and valid, but, at the same time, this disruptive technology provides us immense beneficial opportunities. To deal with these contradictory imperatives, we could use the policy instrument of regulation. The policy instrument of regulation is primarily meant to exercise control on certain things or phenomena on behalf of society in order to protect and promote societal or public interests. The term control often implies some kind of prevention or deterrence. However, the regulatory instruments could also be used to facilitate, guide, and encourage the beneficial uses of technology for serving developmental and social objectives. I call this the ‘progressive regulation’.
The order of Mumbai Police banning the technology is essentially a local and an ad-hoc measure. The regulating body in the sector, viz., the Directorate General of Civil Aviation of the Government of India came out with draft guidelines in this regard in April 2016, which are yet to be finalised. This is a regulatory instrument, which will be permanent and with the national scope; and, hence merits detailed attention. These guidelines are essentially focused on typical bureaucratic regulatory instruments of registration, certification, and control of operations. The guidelines exclude any operation below the height of 200 feet for any purpose, including those for recreational (and educational) purpose, from regulatory control. Further, in brief, the key provisions in the guidelines include, first, registration of every ‘unmanned aircraft’ (UA) including drones and issuing of a Unique Identity Number (UIN) for each UA. Second, the regulatory instrument proposes issuing of ‘UA Operator Permit’ (UAOP).
The societal (social and governance) challenges before the country presents diverse opportunities for the beneficial use of technology. Most importantly, the talent––capable of the out-of-the-box or jugad thinking––available in commercial and NGO sectors makes it possible to use this technology for innovative applications for diverse purposes.
Third, it puts some serious procedurally and technically complicated requirements on every flight (or operation) of an UA. This implies that the UA operator would require specialised professional knowledge and capabilities as well as resources for undertaking a UA flight. This will effectively make it quite difficult for a non-professional body or individuals to operate an UA. The regulatory instrument does regulate the maintenance, sale, purchase, or disposing off the UA or related system. However, it is silent on the import or manufacturing of the UAs. I assume that there would be another policy that regulates the import or manufacture. The instrument does make an attempt to protect interests of owners and residents of the properties in the flight path of UA. However, the related provisions seem to be inadequate in view of the concerns over privacy and safety of these stakeholders.
Thus, the guidelines are primarily designed with the concern of security in mind and by nature are preventive. However, one might notice some loose ends and loopholes in these guidelines even from the security point of view. For example, it is very difficult to practically ensure that the unregulated flight of a UA below 200 feet would not spill beyond the height. Further, due to the cumbersome requirements on operations of UA, very few will venture to legally use the drones above 200 feet and over long distances. This will preclude the use of drones for commercial, social, or developmental purposes. Alternatively, such strict control would encourage illegal use of the drone, which will be difficult to curb. The very fact that drones are included in the broad category of UAs demonstrates that they are seen only as a security threat. This regulatory instrument ignores the special characteristics of drones and the huge opportunities for their beneficial uses. Hence, what we need here is the progressive regulation.
The progressive regulation of drones will, first of all, acknowledge the positive opportunities and then strive to encourage and facilitate its innovative use by various sectors and sections of society for beneficial purposes.
The progressive regulation of drones will, first of all, acknowledge the positive opportunities and then strive to encourage and facilitate its innovative use by various sectors and sections of society for beneficial purposes. In order to balance this task with the security-related concerns, the regulatory instruments will have to adopt innovative and out-of-the-box thinking and not take a bureaucratic approach. For example, it should create a new category of Drone Service Providers (DSPs) who will operate a fleet of drones, which will be available to any legitimate user, commercial or otherwise. The main burden of ensuring the security will be borne by these agencies, including the inspection of payloads. The regulators will register, certify, and monitor these provider agencies and their operations. DSPs, thus, on one hand, encourage and facilitate the use of drone technology on a wide scale. On the other hand, in order to ensure security, it will be easier to regulate such professional agencies possessing the necessary capacity, equipment, and economic interest in long-term operations. In order to ensure fair price, there could be open competition among certified DSPs, which may lead to market segmentation. Such efforts for facilitation the use of drones would be further served if the regulatory provisions significantly differ for the sensitive (from the perspective of security) and non-sensitive areas. Even the sensitive areas could have some segmentation. Using technology, firewalls could be created around the sensitive areas, allowing significantly relaxed regulation in the non-sensitive areas.
These are some preliminary ideas and are expected to create interest in the minds of readers about the regulation of drones, or some other disruptive technologies, or, for that matter, about the policy, governance, and regulatory issues. I plan to do further work on this issue. So, if you are interested in these issues, please contact me.