In a first, Bengaluru-based Skylark gets DGCA green light to fly drones

Skylark’s co-founder Mughilan T R (right) and COO Mrinal Pai
Bengaluru-based Skylark Drones on Thursday become the first company to launch drones compliant with the aviation regulator’s no permission, no take-off (NPNT) requirement, bringing drone delivery of food and online purchases a step closer to reality.


The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) had set up an online IT platform called Digital Sky for handling drone-related applications and permission to fly drones in India. Nano drones — weighing 250 grams (g) or less — were allowed to fly legally from December last year, while micro (250 g to 2 kg) and above were supposed to register on the Digital Sky portal.


Flying a drone over 250 g in weight is a complex exercise. It requires a host of permissions from the DGCA, the Directorate General of Foreign Trade, the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Ministry of Defence, the Indian Air Force, the Wireless Planning and Coordination Wing (Department of Telecommunications), the Bureau of Civil Aviation Security, the Airports Authority of India and local police, according to the rules laid out by the DGCA.


Digital Sky automates all these permissions, collectively called NPNT, which have to be obtained by drone manufacturers before operators like Skylark can use them for different purposes.


“What this (NPNT) implies is that unless a drone has got valid permission for a particular flight through tamper-proof digitally signed permission tokens, it will not be able to take off. Digital Sky is the platform to automate the processing of these permission tokens as they flow in from different parts of the country without overwhelming the authorities through a flight information management system (one of only three countries to build this nationally after China and the US),” explained product software think tank iSPIRT in a December blogpost.


A Goldman Sachs report pegged the drone market at $100 billion between 2016 and 2020, of which $13 billion is expected to be driven by civil and commercial applications.


Skylark said one of the biggest bottlenecks for drone firms was getting multiple-level clearances. But with Digital Sky operational since December, the only thing remaining was having manufacturers comply with the DGCA regulations.


“There is single-window clearance now. An operator can purchase the route. You just need to mention where you are flying, when are you flying and who are you. If it’s a green zone, you would get a completely automated digital permission. The drone would then take off and leave only when you have a valid permission. NPNT is a single window, and you’re integrating drone completely into the airspace. It will now completely open up to companies and government, railway track inspection,” said Mrinal Pai, COO and co-founder of Skylark. 


The NPNT-compliant drones it has launched are called ‘Patang’. A green zone is where drones are pre-authorised to fly, but have to take the requisite permission through the Digital Sky platform. Red zones are where drone operations are forbidden — such as airports, borders and other sensitive areas. Amber zones are areas restricted and require additional permissions.


Digital Sky has three layers — online registrations, automated permissions and analytics, tracking and configurable policies. The first two are now operational. “There is a third layer of configurable policy. It will be owned by the DGCA itself but the idea was that industry is going to evolve. Today there are certain restrictions defined by the policy in terms of height, ceilings and green and red zones,” Pai said.


To evolve over time, after flight you have to send a log. It will also help identify bad actors, who might take permission but not fly, or fly in the forbidden zones. The regulator can now evolve it (the policy) in the right direction,” Pai added.

He said food delivery and e-commerce delivery through drones may soon become a reality.


Gurugram-based food food-delivery company Zomato said last week it had successfully tested its maiden drone delivery technology at a location approved by the DGCA. It had acquired Lucknow-based drone manufacturer and consultant start-up TechEagle in December.