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

Courtesy: DFI

An upmarket society in Mumbai’s Andheri East, last month, sent an email to residents mentioning that the Mumbai Police Commissioner’s office and the Drone Federation of India (DFI) would fly a drone in their society to enforce the nationwide lockdown. A resident of that very society was chosen by the DFI to fly the drone, and the email said that the exercise was a survey designed by DFI and Mumbai Police to spot locations where people are gathering in numbers despite the lockdown. “They will take action everyday,” the email, which MediaNama has seen a copy of, said. This raised concerns among one of the residents of the society who called this exercise invasive and told MediaNama, on the condition of anonymity, that drones could potentially hover in front of people’s living rooms. “People are appreciating the effort, but we hope that they’ll only fly the drone in common areas,” the person said.

The DFI, a non-government, not-for-profit, industry-led body, along with Mumbai-based Sagar Defence Engineering, and DroneStark Technologies, has partnered with the Mumbai Police to deploy surveillance drones in the city, to keep an eye out on lockdown violators, and enforce the lockdown. Over 45 drones have been given the permission to dot the city’s skyline.

When MediaNama called the Mumbai police commissioner’s office, they said that the entire exercise had been a huge success, and that they were able to scramble gatherings across the city on a number of occasions. The commissioner’s office also said that people shouldn’t worry for their privacy because the police wasn’t after it. “We’re only trying to save them,” the commissioner’s office said.

The Mumbai Police authorised the DFI to carry out drone surveillance on their behalf for “corona lockdown” at Wadala, Malad, Jogeshwari-Vikhroli Link Road, Madh Island, Versova, Chakala, Chembur, Dadar, Mankhurd, Juhu, Ghatkopar, Prabhadevi, Borivali , Lamington Road, Dahisar, Goregaon, Swastik Park, Kurla (East), and Mumbai. The authorisation letter, which we saw a copy of, authorised the organisation to fly drones between April 4 and April 14. However, Smit Shah, director of partnerships at DFI, told us that they received a similar letter, which extended their partnership till May 3.

In the letter, the police set certain and conditions for DFI, and wrote that surveillance should be limited to the places mentioned in the letter, should not “interfere with the individual freedom of the citizens”, drones shouldn’t be flown above 100 metres, and while the surveillance is being done, a “police officer in uniform should be appointed”.

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Courtesy: DFI

A mix of surveillance and announcement drones

Shah told us that DFI was authorised to fly 46 surveillance and loudspeaker drones in Mumbai, and on an average, there were 20-25 drones flying everyday. For every ten surveillance drones, one loudspeaker drone was used, Shah said. The drone pilot has an 8-inch tall screen using which they can navigate the drone around an area. The same footage can also be relayed to the Mumbai Police’s control centre near Crawford Market. The footage is relayed over a platform hosted on an Amazon Web Services server.

“When we were approached by the DFI and the Mumbai Police, we were able to modify a drone which we provide to the armed forces by fitting a three and half kilogram heavy megaphone to it”, Mridul Babbar, co-founder of Mumbai-based Sagar Defence Engineering told MediaNama. Babbar’s company provided the police with 3 such drones that were used in Dharavi, Malvani, Worli-Koliwada, Bandra and in Palghar district. Worli-Koliwada was reportedly Mumbai’s first containment zone, and was de-contained yesterday.

Babbar explained that his engineers mounted a mobile phone connected to the speaker-equipped drone, and the “phone could pick up calls automatically”. This way, the operator on the ground could just call the phone, and the police official on the ground could make announcements via the speaker.

Courtesy: DFI

Recording and sharing protocol

Similar to drone operations in Delhi, “the general protocol is not to record footage, because it doesn’t add much value”, Shah told us. The drones are equipped with 4K cameras, and that’s the resolution in which they record. As a result, even a 2 minute long footage can end up being more than 200 megabytes, Shah said. Regardless, any footage that is recorded becomes the property of the Mumbai Police even though they aren’t in much need of it, he said.

The live footage is relayed to the control centre over a platform called Wowza streaming engine, developed by Wowza Media Systems. For footage that is recorded on the drone’s SD card, also called “off-board footage”, is transferred physically by swapping the SD card, Shah clarified.

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

When we asked Babbar about how the police ensures that the pilot deletes recorded footage from the SD card, he said that deleting footage is a contractual obligation. However, there are no checks and balances apart from the contract to ensure that the footage recorded by pilots is actually deleted.

Most of the times, however, the operators are asked to click a picture of any violation, and if the picture is alarming, then the control centre alerts the local police who then manage the situation. “So it’s not as if recordings or pictures are ever actively used to track and identify people. They form the basis for further action from the police,” Shah told us.

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At the helm

Flying drones isn’t an easy task, and not everyone can do it effectively. Shah claimed that only operators with some amount of experience were selected to carry out the surveillance. “We engage with drone pilots who are professionals and have at least a couple of years of experience in flying drones,” Shah told us. None of these pilots have a drone flying licence because aviation regulator Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) hasn’t authorised any drone training agency in the country, according to Shah.

DFI collated information on drone pilots along with the kind of equipment that they own, and submitted a 6-page proposal mapping out a plan for the surveillance along with information about drone operators, Shah said. “We collected a copy of each pilot’s Aadhaar, PAN, etc. and added that to our proposal, on the basis of which the police allowed those operators to carry out the exercise,” he added.

Courtesy: DFI

Not all pilots were accompanied by the police: However, contrary to the Mumbai Police letter which said that police officials should accompany drone pilots, certain operators who were onboarded to fly over specific areas, including residential societies, were not always accompanied by a police official. “If I’ve been selected to fly a drone over my residential complex, I’ll go up to my own terrace, take up the drone to the prescribed height, fly to about 800 metres”, Shah explained.

For pilots that are carrying operations without being accompanied by the police, a time slot of 2 hours each day has been designated during which they can fly their drones. “In the morning, they are allowed to fly between 8 am to 10 am, and in the evening from 5:30 pm to 7:30 pm”, Shah told us. If these operators see any violation, their job is to simply click a picture, and upload that on a platform to share it with the police, Shah said. It’s not clear if there are any rules for these civilian operators to adjudge what is a violation.

“People flying drones without being accompanied by a police official are not authorised to record any footage,” he said, adding, “benefits of this far outweigh any possible problems”. The drone surveillance exercise is not an operation where people are acting on their will; there are protocols, and those are adhered to, he claimed. “We have virtual meetings everyday to ensure that,” Shah said. “There is enough self-governance within drone pilots,” he said.

Besides, if anyone in a residential area has a problem with these drones, they can put up a complain about it at their local police station, Shah added. However, we have not yet received a single complaint where someone might have objected to the use of drones, Shah said.

Shah said that the letter given by DFI to operators flying over residential areas was an ‘acknowledgement’ letter because those “operators requested that they needed to submit something to their society managers”.  The technical ‘authorisation’ letter came from the police, according to Shah, but MediaNama hasn’t seen a copy of that. It isn’t clear whether people residing in particular societies were chosen to fly over that property, even though, as per Shah’s explanation, that would make the most sense.

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What the letter by DFI contains:

Subject: Drone Pilot Authorisation for Drone Surveillance for Monitoring Coronavirus Lockdown

To whomsoever it may concern,

The Drone Federation of India (DFI) is authorised by the Mumbai Police to fly drones to monitor the Coronavirus Lockdown as per the permission letter attached.

About Drone Federation of India
The Drone Federation of India is India’s only drone industry body and addresses issues of the UAV industry and help solve them by forging strong Global Industry Partnerships, Extensive Research, Technology and Knowledge Transfers, Business case studies, pilot projects, engage with policymakers and provide our members access to industry insights.

About National Drone Rapid Response Force
The National Drone Rapid Response Force is an initiative by the Drone Federation of India to enhance the capabilities of India’s security forces=, national disaster response forces and police departments. The objective of this force is to have a ready to deploy a force of highly trained personnel with vast experience of flying drones in varied scenarios.

This letter authorizes XXXXXXX as the drone pilot of the National Drone Disaster Rapid Response Force to fly his drone to monitor the coronavirus lockdown only in the XXXXXX area from 6-03-2020 to 15-04-2020

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Shah said that for the month-long drone surveillance exercise, the Mumbai Police or the state government did not pay DFI any money. However, the organisation is trying to raise funds for drone pilots, because “we understand the effort, and believe that there should be compensation,” Shah emphasised. He also directed us towards a grant called ACT, worth ₹ 30 lakh, which has been created specifically to pay for drone operators. The documentation for the fund is complete, Shah said, but it isn’t clear when exactly funds would be disbursed. Similarly, Sagar Defence Engineering provided support and service free of cost, but Babbar told us that the Mumbai police had engaged Reliance Foundation to support his company for the cost incurred in manufacturing. There is no other contract apart from the authorisation letter between Mumbai Police and DFI, Shah told us.

Finding DGCA

Amid concerns of surveillance and privacy, there is also an important regulatory norm that has barely been followed in India so far — the drones that took off as part of this surveillance exercise were all authorised by the Mumbai Police and not, as the norms say, by DGCA. According to current drone regulations, a clearance is required from the DGCA before each drone takes flight. Called NPNT (no permission no takeoff), it is conceptually a green signal without which drones aren’t authorised to fly. Shah said that the Digital Sky platform, which handles this clearance, hasn’t been given that functionality yet. “As of now, we can only register pilots and drones on the portal, and you can’t get permission,” Shah said.

The government has reacted to this now, however. It 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.

*Update at 12:24 pm: DFI’s Smit Shah clarified that footage stored on drone’s SD card is transferred physically and not over servers. Article was updated to reflect the change.
Update at 12:02 pm: removed a screenshot of the DFI authorisation letter on their request, since the organisation said it could become a potential security issue. Added text of letter instead.
Update: Added watermark to the final image, and made changes to caption to reflect that the letter was shared with MediaNama by a Mumbai resident

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