Policy Hacks On India’s Digital Sky Initiative 1.0

On August 27, 2018, India announced its much-awaited Civil Aviation Regulations (CAR) for drones. The new CAR had many improvements on the original draft published last year, but most important was the introduction of Digital Sky, a technology platform that would handle the entire process of regulating the registration and permissions for all Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems above the nano category, i.e. any remote controlled or automated flying object – multi-rotor or fixed-wing, electric or IC-engine. These set of regulations along with the announcement of Digital Sky drone policy represent the government’s “Drone Policy 1.0”.

What this policy isn’t?

From the outset, one of the largest criticisms of the draft was its seeming omission of beyond visual line of sight flights, as well as those of fully-autonomous operations. Combined with a ban on delivery of items, it would seem like the government is pre-emptively clamping down on some of the most promises of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles before they even begin.

But on close inspection, the Ministry of Civil Aviation has made an interesting & what looks to be a promising decision in naming this policy as “1.0”. Through the various public comments made by the Minister of State for Civil Aviation, Jayant Sinha, it can be gathered that there is a phased-approach being adopted for the planning and implementation of the government’s strategy for unmanned aerial vehicles.

The more complex commercial operations will be rolled out atop the digital platform, allowing the government to test the waters before allowing potentially risky operations.

At iSPIRT, we appreciate this data-driven, innovation-friendly yet safety-first approach that has been inherent to all of civil aviation.

What does the policy say?

The policy lays out a general procedure for registering, and taking permissions to fly for every type of remotely piloted aircraft system (RPAS). A good summary of the regulations themselves, what you need to fly, what you can and cannot do is given here. We will be focussing this blog post on mystifying Digital Sky and the surrounding technology – How it works, what it does and what should private players be doing about it.

What is Digital Sky?

Digital Sky is essentially a barebones Unmanned Aircraft Traffic Management system. An Unmanned Traffic Management is to drones what ATC is to aircraft. Most countries are looking to external UTM providers to build and run this digital enabling infrastructure. The government of India, in continuing its digital infrastructure as public goods tradition, has decided to build and run its own UTM to ensure that this critical infrastructure system remains committed to interoperability and is free from the risks of vendor capture in the long run. Digital Sky is the first version of such a UTM for managing drone flights in both controlled as well as uncontrolled airspaces.

For consumers, Digital Sky essentially constructed of three layers. The three layers are Online Registrations, Automated Permissions and Analytics, Tracking and Configurable Policies.

Online Registrations are the layers that onboard operators, pilots, RPAS and manufacturers on to the Digital Sky Platform. It will be a fully digital process, and applicants can track their applications online. All registered users will have an identity number, including the RPAS, which will get a Unique Identification Number (UIN). There is a private key attached to the UIN allowing the drone to prove it is who it claims to be through digital signatures.

Automated Permissions is the transaction layer that digitizes the process of seeking airspace clearance. Using Open APIs or a portal provided by the government, drones can directly seek permissions by specifying the geographic area, time of operations & pilot registration id, signed with the UIN of drone. In response to the API call or portal request, an XML file digitally signed by the DGCA is generated. This XML response is called the Permission Artefact.

All RPAS sold in India under the new policy must carry firmware that can authenticate such a Permission Artefact. Further, they must confirm that the flight parameters of the current mission match those given in the authenticated Permission Artefact. If these parameters do not match, the RPAS must not arm. This condition is referred to simply as No Permission, No Takeoff or NPNT. Thus, the requirement is that any RPAS (except nano) operated in India should be NPNT compliant. We will cover what it means to be NPNT compliant in part two of this series.

To deal with areas of low connectivity, this authenticated request can be carried prior to the flight itself, when connectivity is available. The Permission Artefact can be stored, carried and read offline by an NPNT-compliant RPAS with a registered UIN. Thus flight operations in remote or low-connectivity areas will not be severely impacted. While this seems tedious, it promises to be a lot easier than the draft regulations, which required the filing of flight plans 60 days in advance.

Digital Sky will classify all existing airspace into three colour-coded zones: Green Zones are where drones are pre-authorized to fly, but must still obtain a permission artefact to notify the local authorities of their intent to fly. On applying for permission, a permission artefact is returned instantly. Red Zones are where drone operations are forbidden from taking place. This includes areas such as airports, borders and other sensitive areas. Amber Zones are areas restricted by appropriate reasons as mentioned in the CAR where additional permissions are required. These requests are also initiated and managed through the Digital Sky Platform

Analytics, Tracking & Configurable (ATC) Policies is a shorthand for the regulatory functions that the DGCA will carry out to regulate the use of airspace by unmanned aircraft. It involves functions such as the classification of Red, Amber & Green zones, deconfliction of overlapping flights, incident response, etc.

The MoCA has articulated its desire for an ecosystem-driven approach to building out the drone industry. From an earlier draft of the No Permission No Takeoff technical document shared with manufacturers, it is expected that this layer of Digital Sky will be opened up to private players labelled as Digital Sky Service Providers (DSPs). We will cover more about Digital Sky Service Providers in part three of this series.

Conclusion

Digital Sky appears to be a move towards a more data-driven, phased-approach to policy and regulation for emerging technology. It is a global first and offers a truly forward-looking approach compared to most other nations.

For operators, in the long term, a formal system leads to an eco-system of authorised players, increase in trust, and rise of a legitimate industry. 

Note:  We have been actively following the Digital Sky policy development, Intend to bring in Part two of this blog after an active role out and implementation starts.

How a much needed niche banking product was born – The iCreate story.

ProductNation caught up with iCreate Software co-founder Naren Santhanam, on what went in to the making of a successful product.

It was circa 2006 when Naren met Anup while they were consultants on the Banking vertical at a technology MNC. They knew from experience that banks had a challenge in accessing information across different systems and there was potential in pioneering something exciting. Over a series of extensive debates they decided on developing a decision enablement product exclusively for the banking sector b leveraging the best of Business Intelligence and Data Integration technologies. 

At that point in time Banks which wanted to have BI & analytics had to develop a customized solution over the available tools, employing the services of an SI. The banks functional team would provide the business requirements. This resulted in substantial lead times apart from higher costs; even then, id guarantee the desired results. 

The big idea

The iCreate idea was based on the founders’ expertise with the functional nature of systems that banks used and other transactional systems. They conceptualized a product that could connect with the bank’s ecosystem quickly. 

This ensured the product could be up and running powering the bank’s decision needs in a fifth of the time conventional approaches take. Also, ideated were new versions/modules of the product that could be rolled out quickly, making the product scalable and customizable to a bank’s requirements.

Both Naren and Anup were confident that banks in emerging markets would see most value in their product as they were still in early phase of technology adoption and competition was low.

Between then and 2009 they invested substantial efforts in understanding the intricacies and pain-points faced by the banks in emerging economies before deciding to focus efforts on them. 

Naren does a quick flashback, “It was an early stage in my career and life, when I had an abundance of energy and not too many strings attached, which made it easier for me. We were clear on the direction, given our past lives in the banking technology space. The big idea was to create a banking-specific decision enablement product”. Since it was a capital intensive proposition, they agreed to embark on the consulting route and then deploy the insights in shaping the product. Naren continues “Yes, there were several challenges of staying afloat and not losing focus on the long-term goal of creating a product company. The last 7 years have been the most fulfilling and exciting ones- something I wouldn’t have ever experienced in corporate life”.

On high octane

They began providing high-end banking technology consulting to select banks in Africa. In 2009 they approached the prestigious National Bank of Kuwait (NBK); while the product was still in its infancy. It was their domain knowledge and technology expertise that won them the account. NBK signed up iCreate to play a pivotal role in their ambitious enterprise transformation initiative, which is lauded as a first-of-its kind for a start-up. By late 2009 iCreate was well entrenched in the banking decision support space. This was around the time they received their first round of VC funding from IDG Ventures India.

By then the product had started taking shape and was christened ‘Biz$core’ – a unique name that encapsulated BI, Core of Banking Systems, Score for Scorecards, Biz for Business and the $ sign signifying money.

iCreate began quickly onboarding the best tech brains to work on the product. They also put together a global GTM team with a ‘whatever-it-takes’ DNA to take Biz$core’s unique value proposition to banks worldwide. By then Vivek Subramanyam was onboard as CEO to pilot iCreate’s growth and revenue strategy. 

Proof of the pudding 

With the change in strategy, the journey started getting more exciting and iCreate found itself in an accelerated growth mode. iCreate’s banking customer count today stands at an impressive 22, of which 16 were added in the last year and a half alone. From a revenue stream comprising 25% product sales and 75% consulting services in early 2010, the split reversed to 70% product sales and 30% from consulting services towards close of FY 2013. 

iCreate’s early stage  banking customers from across diverse geographies, played an active role in in defining their products into a well-rounded ones. Naren explains “Leaders like HDFC Bank and IndusInd Bank with complex business processes, trade finance specialists like Ghana International Bank, Metro Bank – UK, progressive banks like East West Bank, Philippines helped us tremendously with their insights as we were developing our product.” 

Mission to achieve the vision 

iCreate today boasts of five banking-specific products that span critical areas like decision enablement, risk, compliance, regulatory reporting and Basel; and has plans to launch five more during the next year. The recent series-B funding from Sequoia Capital and IDG is expected to help them further expand their product portfolio and foray into newer geographies including North America. 

“Our focus on emerging markets like Asia, Africa and West Asia continue, and we have already established our presence in markets such as Egypt and the Philippines. There are two promising deals in the offing from the UK as well. Most importantly, there is that sense of pride of having created a product that completely changes the way banks look at information management”, remarks Naren. 

iCreate’s road map definitely looks interesting and seems to be aligning well with their vision statement what they call the ‘Vision 5:50:250’, i.e., to be among the top 5 in BI for banking space, win 50 strategic banking clients world-wide and touch Rs. 250 crore in revenues by FY 2015.