Military & Aerospace

UAVs in the Neighbourhood
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Issue Vol. 29.3 Jul-Sep 2014 | Date : 30 Sep , 2015

In all civilian applications of UAVs, the flying vehicle is primarily used to generate a variety of data to meet with the requirements of the user. Analysis of the collected data is central to the success of the mission. The cost of the exercise is proportional to the length of the mission, the quantum of data collected and its complexity. These drive cost upwards.

A major  impediment to the use of UAVs by civilian agencies is the absence of national and international legislation…

Notwithstanding all these constraints, there has been a boom in the use of UAVs in civilian applications both in India and abroad. They have been used in fields as diverse as advertising, film industry, wedding photography, travel portals, crowd and traffic management as well as monitoring solar panels in the desert. UAVs have also been used to monitor wildlife migration, movement of ice floes in the Arctic, fire-fighting and companies are even looking at providing home delivery of supplies. Drones have been used for monitoring of environmental and pollution controls. They were flown over the Fukushima nuclear power plant to check the damage and measure radio activity as well as border controls and counter-terrorism operations.

The projected use of UAVs in the civilian market is phenomenal but the potential has not generally been realised and a large gap exists between the theoretical applications and the actual use by public and private industry However, there are a number of successes but these have been in niche areas.

The impediments to civilian use of UAVs are many and include civil safety and environmental certification, standards for manufacturing and operation, use of the radio frequency spectrum for controlled flight, data transfer, export control regime due to restrictions on technology transfer and insurance liability. All these issues can be addressed but the major challenge is the integration of UAVs with traffic in controlled civil airspace.

Integration with Civil Traffic

Military UAVs generally fly in tightly controlled airspaces where there is no access to civilian aircraft and the control of all military aircraft and UAVs in that airspace is exercised by a central agency. Military UAVs are also designed to be flown in enemy airspace where the safety of the opposing forces is of no concern to the UAV operator.

Most civilian applications require the UAV to fly at lower than 1,000 feet…

In the niche civilian segment, UAVs are flown in highly restricted controlled airspace where there is either no access to civilian aircraft or very limited access to civil airspace. These flights are only permitted for specific times, locations or operations.

Article 8 of the ICAO Regulations states, “No aircraft capable of being flown without a pilot shall be flown over the territory of a contracting State without special authorisation by that State and in accordance with the terms of such authorisation. Each contracting State undertakes to insure that the flight of such aircraft without a pilot in regions open to civil aircraft shall be so controlled as to obviate danger to civil aircraft.”

Unfettered use of UAVs for civilian applications requires that they be permitted to access non-segregated civil airspace and here the problems faced by military and civilian UAVs have much in common. The use of drones in war zones has been beset with accidents and the issue of accountability for mistakes has raised ethical questions. The introduction of drones into civilian airspace can only be done after the UAV industry demonstrates an acceptable degree of safety and addresses the question of who is accountable should there be an accident. Even a small 25 kg drone crashing from a height of 200 metres can cause significant damage. Instances have also been reported of near-miss between UAVs and manned aircraft.

The systems for controlling UAVs has to make them as safe as aircraft with pilots, which necessarily means that they must have the ability to “see and avoid” collision. The pilot’s response to visual and verbal cues is an essential part of safe flying of a manned aircraft. A system has also to be evolved to “sense and avoid” to ensure separation from other aircraft, birds, obstructions and skydivers. There is also a need to ensure that the allocated frequency for control of the UAV is secure in order to ensure protection from unintentional or unlawful interference with the operation of the UAV. A case in point is the alleged interception and downing by Iran of an American UAV by hijacking the communication link.

The security situation in India is such that even manned private civil aviation has severe restrictions on operations…

Current security rules preclude the entry of any unauthorised person into the cockpit of an plane in the air. The same rule has to be applicable to the entry of personnel into the control station of the UAV. Lastly, like a piloted aircraft, the UAV should be able to continue flying safely and land autonomously in the event of a control and communication failure.

A major impediment to the use of UAVs by civilian agencies is the absence of national and international legislation and regulation governing UAV flight management in unrestricted civilian airspace open for all categories of civil aircraft which includes all non-military aviation representing both private and commercial flight.

Initiatives by ICAO

Most countries are members of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and work towards establishing common standards and recommended practices for civil aviation. If UAV operations are to be introduced into civil airspace, they have to conform to universal practices adopted by all signatories of ICAO. The problem is that ICAO has not adopted any regulations in this regard but the process has been initiated. The ICAO is developing a regulatory framework for integrating UAVs into civilian airspace.

The ICAO recognises that the UAV is not merely an aircraft which is singular and defines UAVs as a Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS) which consists of “a remotely piloted plane, one or more remote piloting stations, flown by remote pilots who work for an RPAS operator.” Thus, the remotely piloted aircraft will need a certificate of airworthiness, the RPAS operator must be certified like the air operator certificate and the remote pilot has to be licensed. ICAO is working on an RPAS manual to be published in 2014 offering guidelines of the related standards.

UAVs have the potential to cause mayhem in the hands of those inimical to the country’s security…

Between 2016 and 2018, ICAO plans to issue Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPs) and Procedure for Air Navigation (PANs) for aircraft, operators, licensing, sense and avoid standards, communications and basic Air Traffic Management (ATM) procedures. It is expected that by the year 2020-2023, SARPs will be refined to add aerodrome requirements and expanded ATMs.

ICAO plans that all requirements for operating RPAS will be in place by 2028 and all member countries will be signatories to the new regulations for unmanned aircraft. Till then, member countries are required to regulate UAV flights in their sovereign airspace and some countries are moving ahead to ensure that their procedures are in place before the ICAO deadline.

The US Congress passed a bill in February 2012 requiring the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to evolve procedures for the integration of UAVs into civilian airspace by 2015. Initially the FAA is expected to publish rules for the operation of small UAVs that weigh no more than 55 pounds. The European Commission plans to do likewise by 2018 and similar initiatives are being taken by a number of other countries.

The Indian Scenario

India can use UAVs for monitoring exploitation of natural resources by the mining industry, encroachment of forest lands, disaster management, discharge of pollutants into rivers and coastal areas, surveillance of gas and oil pipelines, policing of borders, aerial survey of agriculture and a host of other applications. Much of this work can be done by civil agencies to whom the work would be outsourced but there are a number of organisational and security concerns that have to be addressed if the civilian and commercial use of UAVs in India is to take off.

The security situation in India is such that even manned private civil aircraft have severe restrictions on operations.

Most civilian applications require the UAV to fly at lower than 1,000 feet where there are no civilian manned aircraft and in areas far away from scheduled aircraft routes which pose no real danger to civil aviation. Despite that, UAVs cannot be permitted to operate till such time regulations pertaining to ownership of the UAV, insurance liability, airworthiness of the craft, licensing of the pilot and availability of beyond line of sight communication spectrum are in place. If ever UAVs are to be permitted to fly in Indian civilian airspace, the DGCA has to draft regulations and set standards for UAV systems in conformity with the ICAO regulations.

In India, the growth of civil air traffic is putting pressure on the available airspace and the introduction of UAVs into the same airspace will further aggravate the situation. Presently, all UAV flying is undertaken with permission from the DGCA and/or the Ministry of Defence since UAV flying is primarily carried out by the military or government agencies. The security situation in India is such that even manned private civil aircraft have severe restrictions on operations.

It is an accepted fact that UAVs have the potential to cause mayhem in the hands of those inimical to the country’s security and therefore the promulgation of guidelines to fly private UAVs without any special clearances seems to be a distant dream. However, India as a signatory of ICAO is required to formulate its own rules and regulations towards permitting UAVs and manned planes to fly in the same airspace.

In view of the difficulties in integrating UAVs into civilian airspace, will they, in the near future, be whizzing around the neighbourhood tracking traffic, providing emergency medical aid, monitoring pipelines, fighting fires or delivering pizzas? Much will depend on the close collaboration between the industry and government agencies in getting the DGCA to move with speed and be responsive to the needs of UAV operators.


  1. Stimson Centre Washington; Emerging Uses of UAV Technology Brandenburg Institute of Society and Security.
  2. FAA Regulations for Unmanned Aircraft Systems.
  3. FAA: Integration of Civil Unmanned Aircraft Systems in the National Airspace System Roadmap 2013.
  4. International Regulatory Framework for Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems, ICAO.
  5. Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Seminar Lima, Peru, April 18 – 20, 2012 .
  6. European Aviation Safety Agency: UAV Task Force Final Report.
  7. NASA: Civil UAV Capability Assessment
  8. Non-Military UAV Applications: Dr Alexander V Koldaev 2007.
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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Air Commodore KB Menon

Fighter pilot, served as a flying instructor in Iraq and also as Defence Attache in Washington.

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One thought on “UAVs in the Neighbourhood

  1. You are right. UAV is going to create security problem. The UAV used for commercial purpose is very easy to manufacture. UAV kits are available in the market costing $ 60 to $ 900. These Quad-copter’s can be identified easily. But it is very difficult to identify the man made birds and insects developed by USA army and used for spying.

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