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COVID-19: Drones being used to spray disinfectants in Varanasi

drone, france, India

Drones are being used in UP’s Varanasi, a city with a population of 1.4 million, for spraying disinfectant in COVID-19 hotspots and containment areas, isolation areas, quarantine areas, and shelter homes, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs said in a statement. The flight path of these drones is also being recorded. Varanasi is the Lok Sabha constituency that Prime Minister Narendra Modi represents. Garuda Aerospace, a Chennai-based private company has provided the drones, which were airlifted from Chennai with “special permission” from the Ministry of Civil Aviation.

With this, Varanasi joins Delhi, Telangana, Kerala, Gujarat, and Maharashtra, among others, where drones are being used to either surveil lockdown violators, or spray disinfectants.

A seven-member team, with two drones has been operationalised for this purpose. Trial runs were completed on April 17. Drones are flown using a remote-control device by drone pilots, and every flight lasts anywhere between 15 to 20 minutes, after which the disinfectant is refilled and batteries are replaced. Apart from spraying disinfectants, the flight path of the drone, and the subsequent area covered is also recorded on a “hand held device with GIS maps on the backend which is plugged to the remote controller”. It is unclear what happens to these recordings, and how they are saved and shared.

The Ministry said that vehicles used for drone operations are fitted with GPS and GSM based wireless cameras using which the entire movement of drones and their operations are centrally monitored from the Kashi Integrated Command and Control Centre. The sanitary inspector and other members of the drone team report to the nodal officer before and after drone operations are carried out at each designated location.

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

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The money being spent on this exercise is hefty — average cost of operations range from Rs 8,000 to Rs 12,000 per day per drone and is dependent on the area covered in acres. Operations in Delhi for instance, are being done with no financial exchange in place. The operational cost of the exercise in Varanasi, which includes service and chemical costs, are covered by the city’s administration, while the capital costs of the equipment are handled by the “agency concerned”. It isn’t clear which agency the ministry is referring to here.

According to the Digital Sky platform, which handles permissions for flying drones in India, “Fight Permission is currently in abeyance, till further orders from Competent Authority”. Drones (except nano types) are required to receive a clearance before they can fly, and can’t take off unless they get the clearance. However, from the message on the Digital Sky platform,  it appears as if the permission is not needed for now, although MoHUA did say that “special permission” was taken from the Civil Aviation Ministry. We’ve reached out to aviation regulator, Directorate General of Civil Aviation for more details.

“Assuming that the drones are used after complying with the extant domestic regulations for the use of drones in India, it may still have major implications for data privacy. In fact, in a recommendation for legislation around the use of drones, the Hungarian Data Protection Authority has emphasised that data processing with drone-mounted accessories has data protection implications. This is because even the proper use of drones can be very invasive into the privacy of people due to the ability and effect of the tool to collect data about everything that is in its field of vision, which is, compared to the use of similar technologies, unusually wide and can be changed very quickly,” Vaneesha Jain, Associate Partner at Saikrishna & Associates had written in an op-ed for MediaNama earlier this year.

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