India is one of only a few nations to completely outlaw consumer drones. While the government suggests they are for regulation not prohibition, their actions suggest otherwise. Laws governing the use of drones have effectively removed the ability of any individuals to purchase or own a drone in India nor import as a foreigner.
Mountains of paperwork, excessive restrictions and indecipherable bureaucratic jargon are just a few of the hurdles to drone usage in India. Their stance is truly unclear. But, they are adamant about one thing; should you try to enter India with a drone while lacking appropriate paperwork it will be removed from you at the airport.
To some, the use of a drone may seem like a trivial matter. But, the Indian government has affirmed their belief that any ‘regulation’ is purely directed at minimising any potential injuries.
Regardless of the ban…
I recently travelled to India via the Ghandi International Airport, the busiest airport in the world, with my DJI Mavic and no paperwork. 27 days later I departed the same airport with a stockpile of drone photography from a myriad of corners around India.
Several weeks earlier I was on the cusp of a backpacking trip through Southeast Asia. Adventure was my calling. Photography my motivation. For near on two months I had been lugging around a second backpack solely dedicated to photography equipment.
Reaching the southernmost boarder of Indonesia, I was faced with my first dilemma – India or Cambodia? I am not sure to what reasoning I made the decision, but I quickly found myself with a ticket and e-visa to India.
With ticket in-hand and pack on back, I was faced with my second and more substantial dilemma when doing some research on India; No drones allowed and I was carrying my recently purchased DJI Mavic.
Stressed. Frustrated. Tired. And, conflicted on what path was best to take with the few options I had.
There were essentially two options. Send the drone home, effectively ending any aerial shots during future travels or take a risk and try to smuggle in into India. Through this article, you can easily assume which option I took.
With a disheartened smile and drone in pack, I boarded my plane bound for Ghandi International Airport. I had read much about smuggling drones into India and had developed a full-proof plan;
Put the drone in my carry-on bag. Smile. Act like a normal non-criminal. Hope for the best.
It may sound foolhardy. But, had I done anything else I would have inadvertently revealed the presence of my drone.
Smuggling a drone into India.
Despite what you may have heard about Indian airports – busy, sluggish, aggravating and excessively restrictive – you’d be wrong. Well, actually you’d be right on all points but the last. In fact, unlike many airports around the world, it is a trivial matter navigating security.
After departing the plane, you will navigate a long corridor to the visa check point. Here, you will go through the normal rigour of entering a country. Applications, photos, passport checks, questions, tensions, et cetera. But, if you have filled out the appropriate paperwork it should not be too tedious.
Next you will precede to baggage collection. Up until now everything should be running smoothly with minimal risk to exposing your drone. But, after baggage collection you will head to the TSA. The dreaded TSA. The biggest threat to your clandestine operation.
Here is how it will play out:
You will approach the TSA. Officers will glare at you and your baggage. As you move towards the baggage scanner, they will trade looks in a threatening and suspecting manner.
Images start racing in your head. Upon scanning your baggage, alarm bells ring. The officers are prompted to investigate your baggage. They uncover your drone. You are escorted to a sealed room where you are separated from your drone and this whole operation is declared a failure. (I can vividly recall these exact fears playing out in mind). But, back to reality.
With a large sigh and gulp you move towards the TSA. A man asks for your passport. And, seeing that you are a foreigner – “here it comes” – he points to the exit. You walk straight pass all the TSA and straight out of the airport.
You have successfully entered India with a drone. And, you are an international drone smuggler.
There is almost no challenge to bringing a small to medium sized drone into India if you are a foreigner from a popularcountry.
Now that you are in India, you have to determine whether or not you are going to use it. There are many places with signs forbidding drone usage and many that do not. It is a novel task getting the drone in, but the penalties are excessively harsh if they catch you. Specifically, they will immediately confiscate the drone and most likely demand an on-the-spot fine, which you will not want to deny them.
Depending on your situation, the best advice I can give you for drone smuggling in India is:
Avoid if possible. Risk if necessary. Do not bring anything you are not willing to lose.
What if I get caught?
Obviously, there is the risk of, for some unknown reason, being requested to run your bags through the TSA and the drone being uncovered. If the drone is discovered it will be confiscated.
(Depending on your drone type, running your baggage through the TSA may not uncover it. The DJI Mavic, for example, is compact and foldable which hides its true nature from the authorities. The Phantom Pro, on the other hand, will likely be conspicuous and easily discoverable).
This does not mean that your drone is lost forever. Only during your stay in India. Upon confiscation of your drone, the authorities will force you to fill out some paperwork declaring, among several things, that you recognise why your drone is confiscated.
On the document, there will be a box you can tick that indicates your intention to collect your drone when leaving India. Be sure to tick this box otherwise your drone will truly be lost. Upon departure of India through the same entrance port you will receive your drone back, should the authorities be feeling hospitable.
Have you smuggled a drone into India?
***Note: I was travelling with a DJI Mavic Pro. The unique ability of this drone to fold up meant it was far less conspicuous than most drones. This was likely a contributing factor to the success of my smuggling operation. I can’t speak to the ability to import non-compacting drones.