“The sky has no definite location. There can be no ownership of infinity, nor can equity prevent a supposed violation of an abstract conception.” – Judge Haney.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), or drones, are aircrafts that can be controlled remotely by a pilot or autonomously by preprogrammed paths. Many industries and organizations adopt this technology, including military, government, commercial, and recreational users. Drones are now being used worldwide in agriculture, energy, infrastructure, media, and entertainment. Given the potential and projected growth of drone use in India, the liberalized Drone Rules, 2021 to regulate civilian drones have been brought in by the Civil Aviation Ministry of India.

The latest Drone Rules, 2021 talk about the classification of UAVs by accommodating heavier drones to be used for transportation, establishing the “Digital Sky Platform” for drone administration, reducing the number of permissions and the type of fee, dividing the airspace into green, yellow and red zones, prohibiting the carriage of arms, ammunition, explosives, and military stores, etc., developing corridors for UAVs’ movement, relation to foreign drone companies to manufacture drones.

As drone technology advances and becomes more common and affordable, it raises debates on new ethical, legal, and human rights-based concerns. India’s drone guidelines released previously and to date can be observed as emphasizing the economy or market expansion rather than human or fundamental rights. As a result, the entire onus of protecting individual privacy is seen to be thrown upon the drone operator in the UAS rules earlier released in March. There are no procedural safeguards to deal with situations when there is a breach of user data and urgent issues like privacy, safety concerns, or legal liabilities, even in the newly released Rules.

Clause 12 of the drone rules discusses mandatory safety measures which must be inbuilt with drones mentioned as “No Permission – No Take Off” hardware and firmware, a real-time tracking beacon to communicate altitude, speed, location, UIN, and also demands geo-fencing capability, provided mid-air collisions between drones can happen in the event of system failures; falling drones are a danger, primarily when they are used near highly populated areas or large crowds. These Drones can put human lives in jeopardy in such scenarios at a large scale.

Clause 14(1) states that any person can operate an unmanned aircraft system by registering it on the Digital Sky Platform and obtaining a unique identification number. Also, Clause 22(2) of the rules states no prior permission shall be required for operating an unmanned aircraft system in a green zone, subject to the provisions of Rule 21 (after verifying with the Digital Sky Platform). Putting these points together, drones can be registered to carry out various activities like mass surveillance, targeted individual tracing and killing, face detection, or damaging public or private property by an individual, politico-military, or other terror groups. Various spying agencies can also watch drones in their area of interest leading to grave human rights violations. 

Clause 25 of the Rules provides direct access to the Digital Sky Platform to the Nodal Officers of State Governments, Union Territory Administrations, and Law Enforcement Agencies. And so, mass surveillance or monitoring of the public by government entities can take place, which might lead to various rights issues since drones can collect data and images without any consent.

Clause 27 of the Rules states that ‘No person shall carry or cause or permit to be carried in any unmanned aircraft to, from, within or over India, any arms, ammunition, munitions of war, implements of war, explosives, and military stores, except with the written permission of the Central Government.’ But the policy has left the decision of carriage of goods to the Drone Operator. Moreover, no technology is available to detect dangerous goods or arms getting carried through the Digital Sky Platform, a situation that puts human lives on a mass scale at stake from various enmity and terror groups.

Clause 29 of the Rules states that ‘No person operating an unmanned aircraft system shall violate the right of way of a manned aircraft and remain clear of all manned aircraft.’ Although High-Quality Video Streaming will be essentially embedded for drone operation, the minimum height of drone operation and the fine for violating the height limit have not been mentioned in the Rules, which might lead to obstacles in the way of manned vehicles.

Clause 35(b) of the Rules discusses the suspension and cancellation of the license, but grounds of privacy intrusion remain unclear.

Clause 36 of the Rules states that ‘no remote pilot license shall be required for operating a nano or a micro unmanned aircraft system for non-commercial purposes.’ Nano Drones are advanced systems with a lot of functionality that are becoming a primary military tool. Due to their tiny size, they can be used to obtain private data like audio, images, and video feed for surveillance purposes from those unaware of them.

Since no operator license is required for the imported drones, it adds to speculation of sensors and components used and how these drones will collect and process data-ultimately an infringement of individuals’ privacy and thus a violation of their rights.

The Rules are lacking from various ethical and human rights perspectives and can be improved in multiple ways, such as by implementing privacy in the Drones’ design and embedding data protection firmware. Sense and Avoid technology should be made compulsory and included as a safety measure in Clause (12) to prevent drone collisions and endanger human lives. Surveillance Drone Stations should be created to avoid the carriage of arms, ammunition, and dangerous goods and targeted killings of individuals or masses. Minimum altitude of flight and halt time limit should be defined for a Drone to avoid it from acting as an obstacle in the way of a manned vehicle. Drone Operators should obtain explicit consent from users for aerial photography of events, adopting the same practices for digital data collection and data protection. The remote pilot license of such drone operators not pursuing the same must be suspended or canceled. DGCA should also incorporate rules to educate the masses regarding UAVs in a comprehensible manner so that people can better protect themselves in case of right(s) infringement.

While there are multiple challenges to frame regulations and govern technologies while ensuring that user data is protected adequately, UAV-like technologies are a one-way street where companies collect, use, and process personal data at an extraordinary speed and volume. An individual neither has any control over the operation of these devices nor has a say in their deployment like traditional consent infrastructures. Also, minimal user education sources concerning drones are available in the public domain as of now. From development to deployment to data collection and processing, regulations support embedding privacy, and data protection should be a default feature in every step of the architecture of UAVs. Businesses and governments must also take the lead in educating users about UAVs (drones) and the reasons behind their deployment.

By Aditya Anand, Volunteer, Policy, LQF