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Editorial: Evolution of unmanned flights

The fiction of the twentieth century often envisioned a future- shaped by tremendous progress in science and tech - smart skyscrapers, driverless pods, precognitive police and droid armies were the standard fare!

Editorial: Evolution of unmanned flights
Representative Image


While most of these remain in the realm of fantasy even today, we are indeed seeing a paradigm shift in automation and robotics that is reshaping the contours of several industries. Drones are a case in point. 

It was during the lockdown that the potential of drones came into focus, especially when the administration faced the challenge of delivering groceries and medical supplies to people in remote areas, during the lockdown. Keeping this in mind, it is significant to note that the newly anointed Civil Aviation minister Jyotiraditya Scindia’s first policy is on drones. The draft policy that has now been put out for public inputs has proposed a lightweight set of rules that will make it easier for private parties to own and operate drones, something that was restricted in India till now. 

The new policy that factors in a host of new improvements including flight permission requirements, the span of coverage and the size of the drone, is a welcome move. According to the statement by the Aviation Ministry, the Draft Drone Rules 2021 have been built on a premise of trust, self-certification and non-intrusive monitoring - all elements that signal a polar shift from the earlier Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) Rules. Once notified, the Drone Rules, 2021 will replace the UAS Rules 2021 that were released on March 12, 2021. 

Described as “cooperative federalism”, the new draft drone policy has been viewed by the World Economic Forum as a collaborative approach between the government and stakeholders to use technology for the betterment of several strata of society. One of the first states that is ready with a programme on the anvil is Telangana with its ‘Medicine from the Sky’ project. Aiming to address the gaps in India’s healthcare distribution system, the State of Telangana in partnership with the World Economic Forum, Apollo Hospitals and NITI Aayog, is in the process of testing drone-based healthcare delivery. The use of drone technology at the state level requires a seamless alignment with the central government. Health and aviation have often been described as the two most regulated sectors globally, which is why the success of a project such as ‘Medicine from the Sky’ would demonstrate the Centre’s commitment to the implementation of emerging technology for social impact. 

However, one point in the draft rules that may require scrutiny is the removal of restrictions on drone operations by foreign-owned companies registered in India. This would lead to the opening up of a very competitive new set of delivery services that may affect employment opportunities in the services sector. 

As a nascent sector, the authorities have to be cognisant of several moving parts where the slightest error of judgement can result in serious repercussions. Globally, Unmanned Aircraft Systems, while being recognised for their transformational impact, have run into trouble for matters relating to policy, safety and privacy. Equipped with the ability to collect an abundance of data, these drones can be deployed for video surveillance, sound detection, and can even detect magnetic shifts on the topography. On a fundamental level, the public can view this collection of data as intrusive, and there is a pressing need for concerns over personal privacy to be addressed. As these vehicles rely on GPS navigation, there is also a concern of interference with the flight patterns. 

With emerging technologies like Artificial Intelligence, Augmented Reality and Robotics, there is bound to be a blurring of boundaries between the physical and the digital, and timely interventions are needed to address issues. However, there is no doubt that these new technologies share a core characteristic: the potential to transform legacy towards more productive, intuitive, interactive and efficient systems.

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