For the founders of Quidich, the months leading up to the Indian Premier League (IPL)—India’s big-budget domestic cricket tournament—in March 2019 were restless ones. The company, which specialises in drone-based sports broadcasting and filmmaking, was sweating on an exemption from the Indian government. More specifically, from the aviation regulator—the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA)—and the Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA), in order to operate its drones during IPL matches.

Things were so desperate that the company actually stationed an executive in Delhi for over two months, all to get the elusive greenlight for its drones. Why elusive? Because the Indian government’s policy on drones—the Civil Aviation Requirements (CAR), formulated by the DGCA in August 2018—practically rendered all commercial drone operations in the country illegal.

It requires, among other things, operators to register their drones and seek clearance online every time they want to fly. The key consideration was security, and understandably so, given the military and surveillance potential drones hold.

The plan sounded great on paper. Map the country into three zones:

Red—No-fly zones
Green—Flying zones
Amber—Zones requiring special permissions

And regulate drone flying accordingly. The rules, derived under the Aircraft Act of 1943, were enforced by December 2018. Drones also needed another feature—essentially, a kill switch—which would allow for the government’s vision of ‘no permission, no takeoff’ (NPNT).

While the CAR didn’t lack in terms of vision, execution was a whole other problem. The digital portal required for automatic approvals—an online platform called DigitalSky—is still not ready. Neither have the maps been properly demarcated. While a beta version was launched, it was pointless in the absence of a zone map.

The beta version was supposed to be an interim measure to provide the digital permission, said an executive working closely with the Drone Federation of India (DFI). Industry executives and drone companies The Ken spoke to have been told by officials that DigitalSky will only be operational in another six to 12 months.

In the absence of this digital infrastructure, drone operators were hamstrung—flouting these rules could lead to punishment as severe as imprisonment. While India has an estimated 40,000-60,000 drones, according to industry sources, the only way to continue in business is what Quidich did—lobby regulators incessantly.

In the end, Quidich did get the exemptions it needed to operate during the IPL. However, according to an industry executive and a government official aware of the matter, this was an arduous process. It involved phone calls to everyone, from the Board of Cricket Control in India (BCCI) to the Prime Minister’s Office, and the aviation ministry.

The system wasn’t always this broken. In fact, prior to CAR, operators could simply seek permissions offline.

AUTHOR

Pratap Vikram Singh

Pratap is based out of Delhi and covers policy and myriad intersections with the other sectors, most notably technology. He has worked with Governance Now for seven years, reporting on technology, telecom policy, and the social sector.

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