The global production of drones is expected to soar to $93 billion in the next decade. However, as this industry has no regulations, there is fear that they could be used by terrorists and criminals
By Shobha John
This Christmas, many children in the US would have got a gift that would have sent their dreams soaring. Literally. In fact, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), the US regulatory body, expected more than a million drones to be sold during the holiday season. While they are advertised as toys, they are anything but that as they have the potential to cause harm. Alarmingly, there are no regulations for this thriving industry.
Take the case of California-based Owen Ouyang who was flying a drone near his house on a hill at 750 feet. As luck would have it, his drone lost signal and nearly collided with a California Highway Patrol helicopter. While Ouyang managed to get his drone back home, what he didn’t bargain for was a police car showing up outside his house a little later. He wasn’t charged, but it sure gave him the heebie-jeebis.
And this is what owners of drones don’t realize. These attractive machines can crash into low-flying planes and even be used for nefarious activities such as terrorism. This ass-umes significance in the light of the Pathankot air base in Punjab being recently infiltrated by JeM militants, leading to six of them being killed and seven security personnel losing their lives.
In fact, on December 1, in a report tabled in parliament, the home ministry had, on the basis of inputs by intelligence agencies, said that terror groups may carry out attacks across India using sub-conventional aerial platforms. India is anyway using UAVs along its Western sector to stop infiltration from Pakistan and could use them along its 1,138 km Indo-Bangladesh border too, where terrorists are known to sneak in.
Thanks to the small sizes of some drones, they are often difficult to detect and stop, making them a viable option for criminals and terrorists. And if they carry bombs or chemical weapons, the damage can be great. In fact, last May, a man was detained in Washington for trying to fly a drone over the White House.
In August, 2015, an Allegiant Air plane was flying into Los Angeles airport when its pilot reported that a small drone under the plane’s wing almost hit him. Shockingly, the FAA said that nearly 700 incidents of such nature occurred in 2015 alone.
UAVs, or drones, are pilotless aerial vehicles used for reconnaissance, surveillance, intelligence gathering and aerial combat missions. While in India drones are mainly used by the armed forces, their civilian use is climbing up. “Small UAVs usually fly lower than 400ft and those used by forces may be operated up to 3,000-3,500ft. There is little danger of them hitting planes flying at around 35,000 ft,” said Ankit Mehta, co-founder of idea-Forge, a Mumbai-based company making drones. There are many classes of UAVs—those which fly above 30,000 ft, those between 20-30,000 ft, micros which can be carried by one person and minis which fit into a palm.
In fact, US-based Teal Group (a team of analysts on the aerospace and defense industry) estimates that UAV production will soar from current worldwide production of $4 billion annually to $14 billion, totalling $93 billion in the next 10 years. Military UAV research spending would add another $30 billion over the decade.
However, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a UN body, will come up with guidelines for civilian drones only in 2018. Once approved, these will guide ICAO’s 191 member states in setting their own regulations. The FAA, meanwhile, is in the process of creating regulations for small UAVs (less than 55 pounds), which are expected to be out by the middle of this year, said Philip Finnegan, director of corporate analysis, Teal Group Corp, to India Legal via email from Fairfax, Virginia. Incidentally, smaller drones are sold faster than the bigger military UAVs. Finnegan further said: “FAA regulation is a critical step towards development of a commercial UAV market. Curr-ently, individuals and companies are allowed to apply for exemptions to use commercial UAVs and regulations will help broaden the market considerably.”
Till the time that regulations come up, registration of drones is needed in the US. Violations can lead to fines up to $2,50,000 and imprisonment up to three years. The FAA, incidentally, has been working with Transport Canada for common safety standards for drones weighing under 25 kg to facilitate commerce between them.
While each country presently is responsible for creating its own regulations, remote areas in Latin America and Africa may cho-ose to allow them to operate without regulations, informed Finnegan.
BANNED IN INDIA
In India, commercial UAV use has been banned pending the issuance of new rules by the Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA). On October 7, 2014, the DGCA issued a notice on use of UAVs for civil applications. It said: “UAS (unmanned aircraft systems) has potential for a large number of civil applications. However, its use besides being a safety issue, also poses a security threat. The airspace over cities in India has high density of manned aircraft traffic.
Due to lack of regulation, operating procedures/standards and uncertainty of the technology, UAS poses threat for air collisions and accidents. The civil operation of UAS will require approval from the Air Navigation Service provider, defense, Ministry of Home Affairs and other concerned security agencies, besides the DGCA. DGCA is in the process of formulating the regulations…. Till such regulations are issued, no non-government agency, organization or individual will launch a UAS in Indian civil airspace for any purpose whatsoever.” This means that government agencies can fly them, but not private operators. But this has often been flouted with impunity.
In a report tabled in parliament recently, the home ministry said that terror groups may carry out attacks across India using sub-conventional aerial platforms.
Drone flying in India has often led to panic reactions. In July 2015, a drone was seen flying near the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, located close to Bhabha Atomic Energy Research Centre (BARC). Though two employees of real estate website Housing.com were questioned for flying it close to BARC, no case was registered.
While state governments have banned private use of drones, the police has often used it for crowd control. In October 2014, the police deployed a drone in Trilokpuri in East Delhi during communal riots to scan the rooftops for bricks which could be used as weapons. And sure enough, the drone sent images of bricks stored on rooftops, which the police then recovered.
“DGCA is in the process of formulating the regulations…. Till such regulations are issued, no non-government agency… will launch a UAS in Indian civil airspace for any purpose whatsoever.” — DGCA notice of October 7, 2014
Drones have also been illegally used at weddings of Richie Riches who want to capture this special moment for eternity and are known to whirr about the heads of guests at a height of 25 ft or more. Equipped with high resolution cameras, zoom lenses and advan-ced stabilizers, they are a novelty factor.
The civilian use of drones has many other advantages too. Mehta of ideaForge told India Legal that the market for UAVs in India has expanded significantly in the defence and internal security side. “Almost all central armed police and defence forces plus state police have bought mini and micro UAVs to support their operations. Other uses of drones are in news and media operations, movies and advertising, real estate, agriculture and the energy sector.”
ideaForge has deployed over 100 drones with various forces for anti-terrorism activities, traffic management, agriculture, border monitoring, etc. and is selling only to government customers as per regulations. In 2013, it made its first drone, NETRA. A newer version, NETRAv2, can now fly for more than 40 minutes and over a distance of more than 4 km. It weighs less than 1.5 kg and can be made to hover over an area, zoom in and stream live video. ideaForge also has a fixed-wing UAV called SKYBOX UAV, which can fly for over 90 minutes and has a range of over 7 km in its highest configuration. The cost of both ranges from $60,000 to $1,00,000, said Mehta.
Air-Vice Marshal Manmohan Bahadur VM (retd), Distinguished Fellow, Centre for Air Power Studies, said that in order for drones to fly in a common airspace, “they should be certified, need a collision and hazard avoidance equipment, foolproof security for communication and data links”. He said it was imperative that the armed forces, DGCA and Airports Authority of India deal with airspace management issues, conflict/ dispute resolution, certification of UAVs and training of operators. “Another important issue is that of liability. If a UAV causes a mishap, who would be responsible—the manufacturer or the operator who could be controlling it from a different country?” he asked.
However, Mehta said it would be difficult for drones to have collision detection systems like in planes. “Portable UAVs are very small and cannot afford unreasonable weight penalties if they are to remain useful. Avoidance of manned aircraft is easily achieved by restricting the airspace used by UAVs.”
Drones are also being used by state governments. The Mussoorie Dehradun Deve-lopment Authority (MDDA) will, in the next three months, deploy a drone to record pictures and videos of encroachment of government land and illegal colonies mushrooming in the city. The MDDA has earmarked `10 lakh for the project. DHL will also reportedly invest $16.3 million and introduce drones in India for deliveries and managing logistics. As part of the plan, state-of-the-art warehouses will be set up near high demand growth regions such as Navi Mumbai, Ahme-dabad, Kolkata, Ambala and Kochi. Drones have also been used in disaster management.
However, the civilian use of drones has increasingly come under attack abroad due to privacy issues. More than 20 US states approved drone laws last year. But the FAA wants civilians to follow its own limited weak rules.
Interestingly, e-retail giants such as Amazon and Google, which can use drones for delivery, had hired lobbyists to visit aviation committees on Capitol Hill so that enough leeway is allowed for drones to fly. In Chicago, drones are prohibited above schools, libraries, churches and private property without permission. In Los Angeles, those using drones near airports can face up to six months in jail.
As far as military drones are concerned, they generally operate in restricted airspace, said Finnegan. “In the US, that means that civil aircraft are not allowed into areas in which military UAVs are operating,” he said.
Surprisingly, India is the largest importer of military drones. It recently sought 100 UAVs from the US, both armed and surveillance versions, worth $2 billion to bolster itself against Chinese incursions. They include the latest Avenger drones and Predator XPs for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance. And between 1985 and 2014, India accounted for 22.5 percent of the world’s UAV imports, followed by the UK and France.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), 1,574 UAV transfers took place between 1985 and 2014. India’s first UAV delivery was from Israel in 1998. Israel, in fact, is the leading exporter of drones, accounting for 60.7 percent between 1985 and 2014. China became the second-largest exporter of armed UAVs in 2014, deli-vering five drones to Nigeria, which deployed them against Boko Haram, a terrorist outfit.
Considering the increasing importance of drones, it is imperative that regulations be put in place fast for this exciting industry.