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India’s Decision to Allow Drones for COVID-19 Relief Operations Will Pave Way for Use in Commercial Applications

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) commonly known as drones are fast proving to be a necessary tool for frontline government agencies in fighting against the COVID-19 pandemic in India. The recent efforts by the Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) to provide fast-track conditional exemptions to such agencies for drone operations opens up avenues for usage of drones for non-defense related application in the country, says GlobalData, a leading data and analytics company.

Nidhi Gupta, Technology Analyst at GlobalData says, “With conventional strategies failing to control the spread of COVID-19 in the country, frontline government authorities are tapping the power of drones for applications such as monitoring crowd gathering and movement through surveillance, enforcing social distancing norms, spraying disinfectants, and delivering medicines.”

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Keeping up with the needs of pandemic prevention efforts, the MoCA, together with the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) launched a portal, GARUD (government authorization for relief using drones) earlier this month. This will help fast track the process of granting exemptions to government agencies across India for conducting COVID-19 related relief operations using remotely piloted aircraft system (RPAS or drone).

The step has been taken to aid government entities in addressing the challenges posed by COVID-19 and it will remain in force until further orders. The conditional exemption shall be limited to RPAS deployed by a government entity for aerial surveillance, aerial photography and public announcements related to COVID-19.  

Earlier in April 2020, the DGCA had also approved operations by no-permission-no-take-off compliant drones in several green (low risk to COVID-19) zones across the country.

Gupta adds, “Through their efforts, the MoCA and DGCA have not only made it easier for government authorities to implement and use drones for specified COVID-19 relief applications, but also paved way for regular and commercial drone applications in the long run.  

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For instance, the MoCA has granted exemptions earlier this month to 13 consortia, including those initiated by budget airline SpiceJet, Google-backed Dunzo and drone maker Throttle Aerospace to operate drones on an experimental basis without requiring operator permits and unique identification numbers till 30 September 2020.The move enables them to pilot drone operations beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) for transporting goods, once approved.

While currently, India allows drone operations only within visual line of sight of an operator, thus restricting their use mainly to surveillance, the BVLOS drone flight experiments will serve as the basis for formulating laws that can allow autonomous and long-range drones operations essential for drone-based deliveries.

Gupta concludes: “Encouraged by the government’s new found focus on easing norms for flying drones, more businesses are now seeking to develop drone-based capabilities such as B2B and B2C deliveries, medical supplies, and movement of packages for air-cargo, which indicates the tremendous potential in store for commercial drone applications in the country going forward.”

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