Being Illegal Won't Keep Drones From Taking Over India

India joins U.S., Japan in setting new laws on drone usage

Wedding photographed with a drone.

Photographer: Vijay Tonk

In India, it’s illegal for a civilian to use a drone. You wouldn’t know that if you went to a Bollywood-style wedding.

A remote-control flying camera is the latest must-have addition at the country’s opulent three-day ceremonies, said photographer Vijay Tonk, whose drone recently buzzed above the colorful throng of 300 guests at a wedding in the 18th century walled city of Jaipur.

“They want that whizzing camera flying over the venue at a height capturing shots that would otherwise be difficult to capture,” said Tonk, founder of Delhi-based photography company Think Tonk, which charges 40,000 rupees ($592) for the service. “Drones definitely do add to the wedding fun.”

They also add to the growing concern among governments worldwide about how to deal with the millions of new, tiny aircraft that are taking to the skies every year as the cost of owning your own drone plummets. SZ DJI Technology Co., the world’s biggest consumer drone maker, has seen revenue rise from nothing to an estimated $1 billion in 10 years. U.S.-based WinterGreen Research expects the drone market will be worth more than $16 billion by 2021.

A mahout walks past with an elephant used for tourist rides as a World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) official carries an unmanned aircraft or drone before flying them at the Kaziranga National Park at Kaziranga in Assam state, India.

A World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) official carries a drone at the Kaziranga National Park in Assam, India.

Photographer: Anupam Nath/AP Photo

“Given the size, capability and versatility of drones, the risks to national security and individual privacy are high,” said Amber Dubey, head of aerospace and defense at global consultancy KPMG. “Governments should carefully strike a balance between ensuring the safety as well as not curtailing the growth of the drones and the advantages they bring.”

As countries draft new rules to respond to an explosion in sales, and a series of high-profile security concerns last year, regulators are concerned about the difficulty of enforcing regulations. Three months after the U.S. Secret Service recovered a drone on the White House grounds, Kyodo News reported in April that another was found on the roof of the Japanese prime minister’s office.

The U.S. in December required owners of consumer drones to register with the government. In the same month, Japan introduced regulations including a ban on flights without permission in built-up areas. Other nations including Australia and South Africa have introduced similar laws.

Singapore posted leaflets to households last year with guidelines that barred flights within 5 kilometers of airfields, or over military areas or crowds or near moving vehicles, thereby making much of the small country a no-drone zone.

As India shows, enforcing those rules may not be so easy. Rashi Grover, 25, got married in Gurgaon, near New Delhi, last February, and made sure the ceremony was shot with a drone. “Everyone really enjoyed the cameras flying around,” she said.

Yash Verma, who has piloted drones with cameras to shoot Indian blockbusters such as Salman Khan’s Bajrangi Bhaijaan, says it’s common for Bollywood films to use drones to film stunts and action sequences.

“Imagine a great location, for example a massive city skyline, a huge forest or mountain location or a vast desert with convex dunes,” Verma said, “A drone is a rather inexpensive option to shoot such locations beautifully.”

Then there are a host of commercial opportunities. Using drones for delivery in urban areas may be possible within a few years if the U.S. government and the aviation industry agree to cooperate on the new technology, Google Inc. said Jan. 11.

Google owner Alphabet Inc. is racing with Inc. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to build drones that deliver products. Deutsche Post AG’s DHL Express has made scheduled drone deliveries, though the expansion of such operations is under regulatory review.

Recognizing that an outright ban is unrealistic, officials from India’s civil aviation and interior ministries are scheduled to meet this month to formulate guidelines on civilian use of drones.

“We must come up with some regulations to ensure that we have some guidelines for things like marriage ceremonies and pizza deliveries,” R.N. Chaubey, the top bureaucrat in the Civil Aviation Ministry, told reporters in New Delhi on Dec. 30. He said such rules would face “technological and administrative challenges.”

While it may be unpleasant to have your neighbor’s drone spying through your window, the real menace is the chance that one of the devices will get sucked into an aircraft engine and cause the plane to crash. Even fairly small drones pose a major hazard to aviation, according to a study by Aero Kinetics Aviation LLC of Fort Worth, Texas.

“The threat to aircraft and helicopters is real, particularly from larger-battery-capacity, higher-capability, camera-carrying drones,” said Robert Mann, president of aviation consultant R.W. Mann & Co. and a former director at American Airlines Group Inc. He said the unmanned devices did more damage than the traditional bird-strike test, which uses a special gun to fire frozen chickens into the jet engine.

Within four years, there will be 16 million new consumer drones taking to the skies each year, according to U.K.-based Juniper Research. That’s about 700 new drones for every commercial jet in the world today.

“Near misses will only increase,” said Reece Clothier, who leads a team of drone researchers at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology’s School of Engineering. He said there are about 400 drone-makers in China, which accounts for about 70 percent of the consumer market.

“The cost is plummeting. That makes drones very accessible to some very unskilled users,” he said. “It’s not going to go away.”

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