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Soon, e-tailers could use drones to deliver your purchases

October 22, 2014 08:00 IST

E-retail giants such as Flipkart and Amazon might soon be able to air-drop your online purchases using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), with the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) considering notifying regulations for civilian use of drones in the next two months.

A senior DGCA official said, "We are examining several issues pertaining to safety for use of UAVs for commercial purposes. We will outline specifications relating to where and how high the UAVs can fly, what flight path these should follow and which areas will be prohibited for such operations. The norms will be readied and notified in the next two months."

According to media reports, Seattle-based Amazon had considered debuting drone delivery services in Mumbai and Bangalore by Diwali this year, as India currently doesn't have regulations governing the use of these devices. In the US, companies such as Amazon aren't allowed to fly drones outdoors for commercial purposes. The International Civil Aviation Organisation is yet to publish standards and recommended practices for certification and operation of UAVs for civilian use.

Earlier this month, the DGCA issued a directive, banning the use of UAVs for civilian applications till official notifications were made in this regard. "UAS (unmanned aircraft systems) have potential for a large number of civil applications. However, there are safety and security issues involved. India has a high density of manned aircraft traffic. Due to lack of regulation, operating procedure and uncertainty of the technology, UAS poses a threat of aerial collisions and accidents," said the official quoted earlier.

The DGCA is in the process of formulating regulations for certification and civilian operation of UAS in Indian airspace. Till such regulations are issued, the regulator has banned non-governmental agencies, organisations and individuals from launching UAVs in Indian airspace, for any purpose. In fact, civilian operations of UAVs will require an approval from the air navigation service provider, the ministries of defence and home affairs, as well as other agencies concerned, besides the DGCA.

Sources in the DGCA said they hadn't received any formal communication from Amazon to operate UAVs for delivery services yet. In December 2013, Amazon had showcased its Prime Air drone, an octocopter (a drone fitted with eight rotors). The company had said it was developing UAVs weighing less than 25 kg, which could travel at about 80 km/per hour. These drones can carry payloads of up to 2.26 kg (which could address 86 per cent of the products sold on Amazon) and deliver these in less than 30 minutes.

Once the DGCA notifications are in place, UAVs could open up a host of applications for civilians. Amber Dubey, partner and India head (aerospace and defence), KPMG, says, "The useful aspects of civilian drones are well known - agriculture, wildlife conservation, search & rescue, aerial photography, perimeter security; remote monitoring of utilities such as transmission towers, pipelines, highways, railways, etc, tracking of natural disasters and, lately, doorstep delivery of products."

However, like all technology breakthroughs, drones, too, hold potential risks - intrusive surveillance for unethical practices. Also, battery failure or loss of navigational control over these devices could lead to accidents. "If a simple bird-hit can bring a plane down, imagine the impact of a drone getting into the flight path of a descending aircraft. Given its multifarious applications and damage potential, ownership and operation of drones need to be licensed, as any other aerial vehicle. Its size, capabilities, aerial route and end-use of collected data need to be monitored," Dubey adds.

Today, UAVs are readily available on online shopping portals such as Flipkart at prices starting at Rs 1,999 (The Flyer's Bay Intruder) and going up to Rs 43,330 (the Parrot AR Drone 2.0 Power Edition). The portal promises their delivery within 10 days.

In May this year, Mumbai-based pizza chain Francesco Pizzeria attempted to deliver a pizza using drones. The proprietor was, however, issued a notice by the Mumbai police for operating an UAV without the requisite approvals.

In the US, Amazon will be ready to put Prime Air into service as soon as the Federal Aviation Administration, the regulator in that country, puts in place the necessary regulations for operation of UAVs. Customers are likely to be offered an option to choose delivery through UAVs in 2015.

In Europe, individual countries retain the right to regulate drones weighing less than 300 pounds. The European Aviation Safety Agency has jurisdiction over larger models.

Droning in, elsewhere

In Australia, commercial use of UAVs requires some easily attainable identification. There are no regulations for model aircraft used for sport, recreation and education

Brazil is a leading player in the use of UAVs. It is using UAVs to patrol borders. There are no direct laws infringing on civilian use of UAVs

In Canada, it is relatively easy to get permits for individually-owned model aircraft weighing less than 77.2 pounds, provided these are not used for profit-making. If these UAVs come with a small camera or if drones do not meet the above three conditions, the required specifications for operational permits are much tougher

Europe: European Aviation Safety Agency grants certificates on a case-by-case basis, a lengthy process. Requests proposing flights in unpopulated areas have the best success rate

In the UK, small, unmanned aerial vehicles weighing up to 20 kg can easily secure permits. But there are restrictions on where and how high these are allowed to fly. Permits to fly in rural areas are more acceptable. Anything heavier or used for aerial photography require 'permits to carry out aerial work'

Sharmistha Mukherjee in New Delhi
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