With Humans Under Lockdown, How Drones Are Helping Fight COVID-19
State administrations are using drones for crowd management, enforcement of social distancing and heat mapping.
Editor: Vishal Gupta and Varun Sharma
Six months ago when Bengaluru start-up developed a prototype of a drone for Indian Institute of Horticultural Research, they didn’t expect the equipment would be used at the forefront of the fight against coronavirus. Now, six of their drones are being used by Bengaluru district authorities to spray disinfectant in the city’s streets amid the lockdown.
In Gujarat, a drone company is working alongside the state government and using its drones to surveil public spaces like streets and markets to check for large gatherings.
Bengaluru is one of the many cities in the country to deploy drones to manage the coronavirus outbreak. Apart from spraying disinfectant, state administrations are using drones for crowd management, enforcement of social distancing and heat mapping.
In an attempt to make their services easily available to the authorities, drone operators have created a countrywide network of more than 200 pilots and are offering their services free of cost, as volunteers.
‘Disinfect Land & Air’
Since 24 March, the founder, Neel Sagar, and the team of Alpha Drone Technology have been working with the Bengaluru city administration to spray disinfectant across the city. They have deployed six teams each, and use hexacopter that can carry 15 litres of disinfectant and fly up to 20-25 feet.
Talking to The Quint, Sagar said an air automiser system in their drones makes them more effective than spraying it using the normal methods.
An air automiser system breaks up bulk liquids into droplets. The droplets stay in the air, making using drones a more effective method than trucks to spray disinfectant. This process covers both the air and the ground.
He said they had collaborated with civic agencies earlier too and with the coronavirus outbreak, they were asked for a demo. The following day, they were deployed. Thus far, they have undertaken more than 150 hours of flying. They target areas with a high footfall.
A similar project has been taken up in Andhra Pradesh where Vijayawada Municipal Corporation is using drones to spray Sodium Hypochlorite as a part of the sanitisation process.
Surveillance and Monitoring Crowds
While Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh have been using drones to spray disinfectant, Gujarat is doing so to monitor crowds and enforce social distancing.
“We are also conducting R&D on a social distancing model for places where large crowds gather such as marketplaces. We can easily detect if social distancing is being followed or not,” said Nikhil Methiya, founder of DroneLabs.
“We use augmented reality and artificial intelligence technology for this. The monitoring is being recorded with drone camera and passed on to the remote control which relays the data to the app which live streams it to the department,” Methiya, who heads the Gujarat unit of the volunteers network, added.
The app, developed by the company, is meant to be used only by concerned departments and not by the public.
“Our drones fly within the regulated 30-40 metre height. We have currently deployed 38 drones. Currently, we are operating in 18 cities including Ahmedabad, Baroda, Janmnagar, Junagadh, Bhuj, Surat where we are deploying 1-2 drones in each city,” added Methiya.
According to the company, the drones will be flown within line of sight, as per regulation. “In terms of areas to be monitored, there are two-three things to consider – one, morning and evening are peak times for people to gather outside in markets. Second, terraces are a common area for people of a building to gather, for children to get up there and play games.”
“We’ve observed that sight of the drones make people clear out the terraces quickly,” he added.
Heat Mapping Crowds
Methiya told The Quint that a model is being prepared to monitor crowds by heat mapping to identify individuals who may be running a high temperature.
“The temperature of individuals can be mapped with an accuracy of +/- 1 degree and this information can be passed onto the health authorities so that they can run a check to confirm this,” said Methiya. “We are planning to roll this out soon and are currently in talks with the state government,” he added.
What About Privacy Violations?
“Privacy is an issue and hence we do not store any data with ourselves. It is only with the senior police and administration who have access to the app and the drone footage is recorded on their own memory cards which they provide. We have instructed our pilots to not use our own memory cards,” said Methiya
“Facial recognition is a concern and it is not possible to capture faces with our drones. The drones only capture crowds gathering. In Gujarat, 28 cases of large gatehrings have been detected through drone footage,” said Methiya.
India is yet to get a personal data protection law. The current Personal Data Protection Bill was introduced in Lok Sabha in December and has been referred to a Joint Parliamentary Committee.
“The Puttaswamy judgement (2017) which is the cornerstone of the Indian privacy regime permits surveillance when ‘authorised by law’ when its use is ‘necessary’ and ‘proportionate’ to the harm expected,”Kazim Rizvi, director of independent policy think-tank, The Dialogue, told The Quint.
“This can only be ensured by placing requisite ‘checks and balances’ and mandating ‘privacy by design’ in all technologies deployed.
“All data collected via the deployment of these advanced technologies should be anonymised and its use should be limited only to ensure a smooth lock-down, and providing emergency disaster relief only.” Rizvi adds.
In the absence of a data protection law, currently, the use, storage and sharing of personal data is subject to the Information Technology Act (2008). The data protection bill allows government access to sensitive personal data for “any function of the state”.
Concerns about surveillance are not unfounded as Delhi Police had recently employed drones to surveil anti-CAA-NRC-NPR protesters. In the absence of any underlying legal framework to guide the use of drone data, experts say this constitutes a violation of the Right to Privacy.
Moreover, the Humanitarian UAV Code of Conduct informs the safe, responsible and effective use of civilian drones or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) in humanitarian settings. “We ensure all the projects are based on Humanitarian UAV Code of conduct and all drone flights are operated safely, ethically and responsibly,” Dr Saxena added.
Creating a Nationwide Network
Dr Ruchi Saxena, director of India Flying Labs, said they have reached out to drone operators across India and more than 200 pilots have offered to volunteer their services at present.
“Our volunteer network is currently operating in Maharasthra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Odisha, West Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana, Punjab and Delhi NCR. At the grass-root level, we have created task forces and at the macro level, we are speaking with state police departments and apprising them of the infrastructure and grass-root models in place,” she said.
She said the network will be happy to work alongside DGCA but, as of now, there has been no formal communication with central government.
“When the Kerala floods happened in 2018, we could not do much as we didn’t have a good enough network and many of us were just starting out.”
At this point, we are much better equipped and coordinated,” she added.
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