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Govt agencies can now legally deploy drones for COVID-19 surveillance

Courtesy: Cyberabad Police twitter | Representational image

The government has created a portal specifically for government bodies to deploy drones for COVID-19 related work such as aerial surveillance and photography and for public announcements. Government bodies can also use the portal to authorise third-party drone service providers to operate drones on their behalf. Called GARUD (Government Authorisation for Relief Using Drones), the portal will “fast track conditional exemptions to govt agencies for COVID-19 related drone operations (sic)”, the Civil Aviation Ministry said in a tweet. The portal — which the Ministry says was launched within 2 weeks  — allows almost any and every government agency to seek exemptions, including those at the Centre, states, district administration, and even “government institutions”.

This portal, and the subsequent exemptions have come in at least a month late, since governments in multiple states, including Delhi, Kerala and Telangana, have already been using drones to either enforce the nationwide lockdown, or spray disinfectants at certain areas, flouting norms laid down by the aviation regulator Directorate General of Civil Aviation. Prior to the GARUD’s existence, a clearance from the DGCA was required prior to each drone (except nano-type) flight. However, in most cases, it isn’t clear if clearance was ever taken.

“The government should have come out with these guidelines earlier, but better late than never,” Kishore Jonnalagadda, co-founder of Drone Aerospace Systems, told MediaNama.

The ministry’s new portal and guidelines still do not permit usage of drones for spraying disinfectants, which has been reported in Varanasi, Chennai, and Indore among other places. If a government body wants to deploy a drone for any other use (other than the ones specified in the guidelines), it will have to seek permission from the Civil Aviation Ministry and aviation regulator DGCA “as per normal procedure”. The ministry itself had clarified this in a public notice on May 2, just ahead of GARUD’s launch. “It [the new guidelines] still disallows spraying and is effective indefinitely until further orders,” Jonnalagadda said.

Other terms for obtaining the exception are:

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  • The authorised entity will be responsible for the custody, security and access control of the drones at all times and shall be responsible for any third-party liability in case of any damage caused by the drone. The entity will have to always supervise drone operations.
  • Details of every drone flight will have to be uploaded to DGCA’s Digital Sky Platform within seven days of flight. Any incident or accident related to drone operations will have to be immediately reported to Civil Aviation Ministry and DGCA.
  • The authorised entity will be responsible for the security verification and capability assessment of third-party drones and drone operators, which has to be done prior to beginning operations.
  • Drones deployed under this portal need to have a valid Unique Identification Number (UIN), should weigh less than 25 kilograms, are restricted to fly above 200 feet, and will have to be operated within visual line of sight (VLOS), among other things.
  • Only battery-operated rotory-wing drones will be exempted, and use of any other type of drone, including fixed-wing drones and autonomous drones is “strictly prohibited”.
  • There are restrictions on flying drones around certain airspaces including near airports at metro cities, and other sensitive areas, among other things.

Even if drone deployment adheres to current laws, they still might have major implications for data privacy, Vaneesha Jain, Associate Partner at Saikrishna & Associates had written in an op-ed for MediaNama earlier this year. “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”, she had said.

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