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Inside the deployment of drones in Delhi to contain COVID-19

Courtesy: Cyberabad Police twitter | Representational image

Much like the Kerala Police and Telangana Police, the Delhi Police’s Dwarka division tweeted on April 11 that the Delhi Police is using surveillance drones to enforce the nationwide lockdown placed to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. The Delhi government said that it is using surveillance drones that can record footage, and send alert messages to lockdown violators. “If Drone suspects any gathering, the announcement is made for immediate dispersion through the speaker attached to the Drone [sic],” it said.

The Dwarka division of the Delhi Police has partnered with TechEagle Innovation, Drone Federation of India, and Skyrise Innovations to deploy these drones. TechEagle’s founder and CEO, Vikram Singh, told MediaNama that his company started deploying surveillance drones in Delhi on April 5. They first started with the Delhi Police’s Central division, and are currently working for other divisions including North, South, and South East. TechEagle Innovations is owned by online food delivery company, Zomato.

“There are at least 15 operational surveillance drones surveilling various parts of Delhi on any given day, and the maximum number of drones we’ve deployed in a single day was 20,” Singh told us, and added, “but the number is increasing every day”. Some of the operators flying these drones are from Tech Eagle, but a majority of them have been crowdsourced. Apart from surveillance drones, there are also about 2 siren drones currently deployed in Delhi. These drones simply play siren sounds to alert people, and don’t have any video recording capability, Singh claimed.

How the surveillance works

The surveillance drones have the capability to record footage, and also relay live feed on a separate screen. Each surveillance drone pilot is accompanied by 2 Delhi Police personnel on the ground. The live feed of the drone’s camera goes on an iPad held by the police officials on the ground, and the same is also relayed, over an Amazon Web Services server, to a dashboard at the office of that respective district’s DCP, Singh informed us. Alternatively, it is also sometimes relayed to a dashboard in the office of any Delhi Police official assigned by the DCP.

While watching the live feed, if any police personnel feels that a particular section should be recorded, it is “only then” that the operator starts recording footage. Singh said that the operators don’t record any footage until they’re asked to do so by the police. The footage recorded by the drones is initially stored on an SD card embedded within it. The order to record footage is usually given by the senior authority watching the live feed, but in some cases, the police accompanying the operator can also ask them to record the footage, Singh said. “They have their own protocol,” he said.

How and where the footage is stored

One project coordinator, who is a representative of TechEagle, has been assigned to each area where drones are being flown, to coordinate between the operators and the DCP’s office. After each day’s work, drone operators come back to the DCP’s office along with the personnel who had been accompanying them on the ground. The pilots then transfer footage from the drone’s SD card to a computer at the DCP’s office, and the police ensures that everything is deleted from the drone’s SD card, Singh claimed.

“The police goes through this footage to devise action plans and strategies. They can look at the footage and see how they could have better reacted to a particular situation. We also use some footage to share with the media about the work we are doing. We are not trying to identify anyone,” an official from the Delhi Police, on condition of anonymity, told MediaNama.

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The footage from the computer at the DCP’s office is usually deleted every 3 days, we were told, but “sometimes, the police asks the project coordinator to delete some footage post analysis itself”. Certain footage can remain on the computer beyond 3 days as well, but no footage is stored for more than a week, because by then, it loses its value, the the same official told us. Singh corroborated this claim. Footage from the drone’s SD card is deleted as soon as the data is transferred to the computer.

When asked about how the police or company ensures that the project coordinators do not mishandle that data, Singh claimed that the project coordinators are “well versed with data privacy and know how to handle the data”. Apart from them, drone operators don’t handle any data themselves, and are almost always accompanies by a police official, he said.

Ensure small file sizes, don’t fly over private property

To ensure that the size of recorded footage isn’t too large, operators have been instructed that no single footage should be over a minute long. Consequently, the drone’s cameras captures the footage in 720p, even when they’re capable of capturing 4K footage, so that the file size isn’t too big, Singh told us.

The operators have also been asked not to fly drones over private properties, Singh said. However, when we directed him to a video tweeted (also embedded below) by the Aam Aadmi Party, where the drone can be clearly seen hovering over people’s terraces, Singh said that it would’ve been done specifically to “share with the media”. He claimed that this is not the standard practice. We’ve reached out to the Delhi government for information about this.

In the same tweet, the ruling party had said that a drone capable of recording footage and alerting people was deployed in Delhi. We asked Singh about this particular drone, since it seemed to refute his claims of having separate surveillance and siren drones, and he said that while they do have such drones, this particular solution is not scalable. “For sending out recorded messages, a drone has to be closer to the ground, and also remain stable at one place for at least 2-3 minutes. That is not very feasible with a surveillance drone”, he said. This is why eventually, they shifted to separate surveillance and siren drones, he clarified.

Financials, contracts

There is, so far, no financial exchange involved in this process. There is also no formal contract that is signed. Singh said that before beginning the project, his company received separate letters from each of the Delhi Police’s divisions to start the surveillance project. However, with more drones being deployed, and with increasing number of crowdsourced drone operators, Singh said that certain funds should be allocated to pay for those operators.

Bihar, UP are partnering with TechEagle to deploy drones

The company is in talks with the Bihar and UP government, where drones can be deployed in the next two days, Singh claimed. The company has also thoroughly discussed a deployment plan with the Haryana government specifically for drone deployment in Gurugram, but since the number of active COVID-19 cases in the city isn’t high, the plan hasn’t went through. “Deploying drones in Gurugram is not required as of now”, Singh said.

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