ISLAMABAD: The global drone market generated about $22.4 billion in 2020 but Pakistan’s share in it was zero.Minister for Science and Technology Fawad Chaudhry implied that the approach to drones was pretty much the same we had towards learning English a hundred years ago.

“Imagine that in this day and age of technological advancements, there is also a ban on imports of 3D printers in Pakistan. Someone thinks that its few side effects such as its use in making weapons outweigh its infinite benefits in the fields of education, S&T, research and development sectors with productive and high-paying benefits to the economy in the longer run,” he told Dawn.

Besides the lack of any previous experience about side effects and fearful authorities opposed to flying UAS playing an important influence in its acceptance, there are also no drone laws in Pakistan.

According to the Ministry of Science and Technology, more than 90 per cent of the estimated 8,000 to 10,000 drones flying in Pakistan mostly for recreational, media and events coverage have been smuggled into the country through grey channels with losses to the exchequer running in millions.

All types of mini and nano drones to high-end UAS are easily available in markets. Only a small portion, may be 100 to 200 of these modern devices, were imported through legal channels after obtaining no-objection certificates (NOCs) from the Ministry of Defence. Because of the ban on import of drones, local manufacturers also face hurdles in importing crucial parts, including cameras, needed to assemble UAS.

Adviser to the Minister on Projects, Ministry of Science and Technology, Humza Haroon, believed “Pakistan’s share of that $22.4 billion global drone market should easily have been $600 million to $700 million, especially when the country manufactures unmanned aerial systems (UAS) locally.”

According to Mr Haroon, Pakistan has the potential to compete internationally within three to five years with formal policy and regularisation with spillover impact to other sectors.

“But first we have to convince the government to remove the ban on imports and operations of drones,” he said.

Drone technology has been used by the defence sector for some time now.

Fawad Chaudhry said his ministry had convinced the prime minister on the benefits that extend beyond defence purposes and gotten approved the policy on mainstreaming drones. The ministry argued that its utility ranged from providing emergency services, humanitarian aid, maintaining law and order, disease control in crops and even delivering products to doorsteps.

“Agriculture drones are our priority. In the next three to five years, drones will become primary agricultural implements for seeding, spraying and monitoring,” the minister said.

He argued that if investment in drone space was to grow a change in the approach to drones could expand the use of the machines.

“For this purpose, we are setting up an entire new structure called the Civil Drone Regulatory Authority (CDRA) that would carefully address safety, security and privacy concerns while advancing opportunities for innovation and utilisation of drone technology and will amend current policies that previously forbade drone operations,” he said.

According to the ministry, once established CDRA will represent stakeholders from the ministries of science and technology, industries, defence, commerce, interior, food security and research, commerce, experts from academia, frequency allocation board and local manufacturers of drones besides the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).

Representatives from all these departments will then put their heads together to develop rules, standard operating procedures (SOPs), work on registration and licencing of drones as well as operators, ensure protection of intellectual property rights, develop importing rules, define design criteria, oversea manufacturing and assembly, make clear rules on operations of drones and their monitoring, besides working on research and associated technologies and developing human resource.

However, some drone operators responded negatively to the new requirements that might restrict freedom of flying UAS, including for recreational purposes. Some users also complained that the new rules were still unclear.

“The new rules would become one of the biggest hurdles to mass adoption of drones with the numerous regulations that restrict what drone owners and operators can do,” said Ali Naeem, who rents out drones to entertainment businesses.

Another UAS operator said several regulations only hinder drone market growth, adding: “Will operators need licences to fly drones? Will we need to register drones? Will they decide how high can drones be flown?”

Whereas local licenced operators welcomed the new rules and regulations.

“The establishment of CDRA will not block but open more doors. Who are importers, how much money is being generated, who are qualified to fly etc just like any other industry, and will answer such questions.” said senior manager ABN Satuma, Nizamuddin. ABN Satuma has been manufacturing drones for the defence industry since the late 1990s.

“If CDRA binds all operators/pilots to obtain licence to fly drones then so be it. Agriculture drones are huge and take skills to fly carrying 32 kg liquids and accidents cannot be ruled out. It is just like getting a drivers licence to drive a car,” he said.

Published in Dawn, April 11th, 2021

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