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How India Used the COVID-19 Pandemic to Push Through a Liberal Drone Policy

How India Used the COVID-19 Pandemic to Push Through a Liberal Drone Policy

Representative image of police personnel in Jaipur during the lockdown, with a drone hovering above them. Photo: PTI

The following is an except, obtained with permission, from Unmasked: Decoding the Politics of the COVID-19 Pandemic, by Dinesh C. Sharma. The digital edition of the book is available here.

While quarantine stamping and public notices outside homes looked crude and infringement of privacy of people suspected of infection and those who had infections, some state governments took to the use of technology to enforce lockdown as well as quarantine and isolation guidelines. Kerala became the first state in April 2020 to deploy drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for surveillance during the lockdown. Under a project named Eagle Eye (which incidentally is the name of NASA’s artificial intelligence initiative), the state police deployed 650 drones across the state to monitor the implementation of the lockdown. This was said to be the first large-scale, statewide use of the technology by a law enforcement agency in India.

The Kerala Police drones were fitted with beacons, sirens and loudspeakers to scare away people flouting lockdown norms. Images were beamed in real-time to the police control room, for on-ground follow-up action. The police used drone footage to make videos of people running helter-skelter as soon as they spotted the drone. Some people were seen covering their faces to evade identification. The soundtrack of movie dialogues and songs was added to make videos interesting. Such short clips released on social media handles of the state police went viral. Police in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka also used drones to enforce the lockdown. Large fleets of drones were backed by an ‘internet of drones’ platform developed by a Pune-based startup FlytBase that allowed ‘seamless integration of intelligent fleets of drones with cloud-based applications.’ The start-up was funded by the central government’s Department of Science and Technology.

The use of drones for civilian purposes in India was banned in 2014 by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) due to security reasons. Rules were relaxed in December 2018, requiring drone manufacturers to comply with ‘No Permission, No Take-off’ (NPNT) regulation for all Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS). These rules permitted operations of drones during daytime ‘visual line of sight.’ In the last week of April 2020, the Drone Committee of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industries (FICCI) reviewed the use of drones in China and other countries during the pandemic and sought a change in the regulatory framework for civilian drones in India.

The panel recommended blanket exemption for the use of such drones for law enforcement, public safety and emergency response, besides use by ‘critical security agencies and enterprises.’ Such exemption, it said, should be for surveillance and lockdown enforcement for government authorities as well as security of ‘infrastructure critical to national requirements’ like monitoring oil and gas pipelines, monitoring of industrial premises, surveying and mapping. The report highlighted examples of Kerala and press reports from other countries where drones were already in use. The Drone Committee was chaired by Rajan Luthra, Head of Special Projects in the Chairman’s Office at Reliance Industries.

In the first week of May 2020, the Ministry of Civil Aviation and DGCA relaxed rules relating to the use of drones and announced the setting up of a portal – Government Authorisation for Relief Using Drones (GARUD) to provide ‘conditional exemptions’ to government agencies for pandemic-related drone use. The exemptions were for the use of remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) by government agencies for ‘aerial surveillance, aerial photography and public announcements related to COVID-19.’ The government agencies were allowed to hire services of third-party RPA service providers. In June 2020, the civil aviation ministry published a draft of Unmanned Aircraft System Rules, further liberalising import, manufacture and ownership of drones, and the development of drone ports.

Dinesh C. Sharma
The Edit Mill, April 2021

During the lockdown, drones were used not only for law enforcement but also for monitoring the body temperature of citizens, emergency supplies of medicine and spraying disinfectants. The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare released guidelines for environmental cleaning and decontamination of public places that were considered ‘risk-prone areas for local spread of the virus.’ Local authorities in cities and towns undertook activities to disinfect bus and railway stations, streets, markets, hospital premises, banks etc. Some of them employed drones to carry the disinfectant and spray in public places. In Varanasi – the parliamentary constituency of the prime minister – civic authorities hired services of a Chennai-based firm, Garuda Aerospace Private Limited, to spray sanitiser under the ‘smart city mission.’ The company claimed that its ‘Corona-Killer’ drones could be used to spray disinfectants on buildings up to 450 feet in height.

Drones along with the company’s team were airlifted from Chennai in an Air India cargo flight, for spraying operation in hotspots and containment zones in the city. Spraying was also conducted over isolation homes, quarantine areas and shelter homes. The process involved visual surveys by the drone team to map terrain and buildings, chalking out of the flight path, filing drones with ‘chemical solution consisting of 1% Sodium Hypochlorite’, and flying drones for simultaneously spraying the sanitiser through its four nozzles. ‘Drones which were specially designed for spraying pesticides for agricultural use are now being used for spraying disinfectant fluid around Quarantined areas and Isolation wards during COVID- 19 pandemic situation,’ announced an official press release. Similar disinfection campaign was carried out in Chandigarh. The Karimnagar Municipal Corporation in Telangana deployed drones from a private firm, Marut Drones, for spraying disinfectants in Mukarampur locality where ‘ten Indonesians and one local had tested positive for COVID-19.’

Government agencies justified the use of drones arguing that ‘disinfecting and sanitising India’s vast area of 3.28 million square kilometres to prevent the spread of Covid-19 is a huge challenge.’ It involves spraying disinfectants at all crowded locations, marketplaces, metro stations, airports, schools, colleges, tall buildings, hospitals and government offices. ‘It is a huge task by current public workers undertaking a manual spraying process approach. But by employing DaaS (Drones as a Service) ecosystem to accomplish this task, the sanitisation operations can be achieved in a quarter of the time.’ Spraying disinfectant using drones was also linked to the government’s flagship sanitation programme: ‘drone-based Swacch Bharat campaign to Clean India regularly will prevent the spread of COVID-19, future pandemics and communicable diseases arising due to unhygienic conditions.’

Another controversial technology the government agencies promoted during the lockdown was ‘disinfection walkway’ or ‘disinfection tunnel’ – a covered pathway in which disinfectants are sprayed as one walks through it. The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) which developed disinfection walkways claimed it as ‘the most comprehensive disinfection delivery system’ that ensured ‘maximum target coverage with minimum shadow areas of an individual.’ It was recommended for use at isolation and quarantine centres, entry points of mass transit systems and medical centres. A similar walkway was developed by the Indian Agricultural Research Institute and was duly inaugurated by the Minister of State for Agriculture Kailash Choudhary. In this tunnel, ‘Quaternary Ammonium Compounds (QAC) are used at a concentration of 0.045%, which is recommended by the Health Department,’ the council claimed.

Hundreds of disinfectant tunnels were installed in different cities across the country. Most of them used sodium hypochlorite in varying concentrations and for periods ranging from five to twenty seconds. This was despite an advisory from the WHO that disinfectants were meant for use on physical surfaces and not on the human body, and warning that spraying chlorine or alcohol on the body does not kill the virus. A group of migrants arriving in Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh were huddled and sprayed with disinfectant by police constables.

Also read: What PSA’s New COVID Advisory Doesn’t Say Is as Important As What It Does

As media reports highlighted the use of chemicals to ‘disinfect humans’ by direct spraying or through so-called tunnels and walkways, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare issued an advisory saying ‘chemical disinfectants are recommended for cleaning and disinfection only of frequently touched areas and surfaces by those who are suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19,’ and that ‘spraying of individuals or groups is not recommended under any circumstances. Spraying an individual or group with chemical disinfectants is physically and psychologically harmful.’ The Ministry said “even if a person is potentially exposed to the COVID-19 virus, spraying the external part of the body does not kill the virus that has entered your body. There is no scientific evidence to suggest that they are effective even in disinfecting the outer clothing/body effectively.” Besides irritating eyes, skin and even nausea and vomiting, spraying of chemicals ‘may lead to a false sense of disinfection and safety and hamper public observance to hand washing and social distancing measures.’

Air disinfection of public places and buildings as done by drones in different cities too had no scientific basis. Writing in the medical journal The Lancet Infectious Diseases on March 5, 2020, scientists pointed out that that ‘although COVID-19 is spread by the airborne route, air disinfection of cities and communities is not known to be effective for disease control and needs to be stopped.’ According to them, ‘the widespread practice of spraying disinfectant and alcohol in the sky, on roads, vehicles, and personnel has no value; moreover, large quantities of alcohol and disinfectant are potentially harmful to humans and should be avoided.’

Thus, the use of drones, disinfection tunnels and on-ground spraying of disinfectants on buildings, streets, markets and people was carried out without any scientific basis. Available evidence pointed to the harmful impacts of such spraying on human health.

In addition to spraying disinfectants, drones were pressed into service to measure the body temperature of people and also, in some cases, to detect the distance between two individuals as per the ‘social distancing’ guidelines. Elevated body temperature or mild fever is among several symptoms of COVID-19. Since it is easily measurable with a thermometer, checking body temperature with thermal devices at the entry point of public places became commonplace during the pandemic. Regular monitoring of the temperature of those in ‘home quarantine’ was also advised.

Thermographic or infrared cameras were fitted at airports for the thermal screening of passengers during earlier pandemics. In China, similar cameras were attached to drones for temperature screening of people at public places and residential complexes to detect potentially sick or infected people. Similar technology was used in New Delhi where local authorities claimed they can detect people with fever even when they are standing on their balconies and roofs. The ‘corona combat’ drone used in the national capital was equipped with a night vision camera as well. Marut Drones claimed that its multipurpose drones could be used for temperature checking. A drone company specialising in crowd control and monitoring body temperature offered its services to authorities in several parts of Bengaluru. The FICCI report on drones mentioned similar use of drones in China, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel and Bulgaria. Drones developed in Australia could reportedly detect ‘coughing, sneezing, heart and respiratory rates of people’ as well.

However, such use of drones raised scientific, ethical and privacy concerns. Experts pointed out that thermogenic cameras mounted on drones were not capable of giving accurate temperature readings of individuals on the ground. A study by Swedish researchers in 2019 had reported that such cameras gave an accuracy of plus or minus 5 degrees due to ambient factors like winds and temperature variation, making them useless for detecting minor changes in the human body. Also, the use of this technology invades the privacy of people. The technology was used in India where a separate privacy law does not exist and the guidelines for use of UAVs do no mention any procedural safeguards other than saying that ‘drones should not invade the privacy of people or properties.

The author has listed references to claims made in this excerpt in the book; they have been omitted here.

Dinesh C. Sharma is a columnist and author based in New Delhi.

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