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Emails reveal how the government finalised exemptions for deploying drones for COVID-19

Email conversations and notings between the Civil Aviation Ministry and the DGCA, the civil aviation regulator, obtained from RTI documents, revealed that rules for exempting drones to be used for COVID-19 surveillance were finalised and published in less than three weeks. A platform to obtain these conditional exemptions, called GARUD, was made ready by NIC following beta testing in less than two weeks, the RTI showed. The emails also revealed that an effort was made to not make the drone operations “too restrictive”, and that the DGCA was wary of allowing deliveries via drones, even though the Ministry wanted to exempt that.

The government had on May 2 published an order allowing authorised government agencies to apply for exemptions to deploy drones for COVID-19 surveillance. The exemptions also allowed government bodies to authorise third-party drone service providers to operate drones on their behalf. The RTI, filed by Srinivas Kodali, an independent researcher, showed that before the final order was released, at least two iterations of it were prepared following emails and meetings between the Ministry and DGCA officials.

While the RTI presents a good enough picture to ascertain the discussions that took place before the exemptions were finally granted, readers should note that the information revealed by the notings in this RTI does not contain attachments sent as part of emails, or discussions that happened in person or on phone. The verbatim text of initial draft orders are also not in these documents. These are the notes made by the officers in a particular file and hence, do not give the complete picture. 

How the exemptions eventually shaped up

Amber Dubey, joint secretary at the Civil Aviation Ministry, and in charge of the drone division, on April 16, sent an email to his colleagues which included a draft order for exempting government agencies from using drones for COVID-19 containment. In a separate email on the same day, he clarified to his colleagues that “we are not CHANGING any process or rule or regulation (sic)”. “All we are doing is making the process web-enabled instead of receiving emails and faxes from various government entities [for deploying drones]”, he wrote in the email. The initial draft order was not provided in the RTI.

Introducing penalties for non-compliance: “As per media reports, many agencies are undertaking RPAS operations without the provisions of Rules/CARs being followed. The actions to be taken in case of any violation, especially violations reported to MoCA/DGCA, are not clear,” the DGCA commented on one of the provisions in the first draft of the order, suggesting that actions against unapproved drone deployments were not initially specified.

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Following this comment, Dubey asked the DGCA to provide a list of penalties to be levied on state governments and drone companies in case of violation of the notice. In the May 2 public notice which was eventually published, the government finally said that violations of the provisions will result in the exemption being revoked, and lead to penal action.

Division of work: On another provision in the first draft, the DGCA commented that a workflow and approval process after receipt of the initial application has to be clearly defined between the Ministry and DGCA. Commenting on this recommendation, Dubey explained how the workflow between the DGCA and the Ministry will be divided, and handled in an email. He said:

“The process remains the same as in the past.The application filed by state governments on the Digital Sky Platform will come to Shri Rajasekar (and the list of DGCA officials provided by Shri Rajasekar) and MoCA’s SDIT Division through email. Once Shri Rajasekar or his authorised colleague approves the application on the portal, an auto alert will come to SDIT Division. SDIT Division will present the papers to Secretary MoCA and thereafter to HMoSCA. Once HMoSCA approves, the portal will generate an approval id and send a mail to the applicant (the state government entity) with copies to DGCA officials and MoCA,” he wrote. The person Dubey was mentioning here is G. Rajasekar, joint director general of DGCA.

DGCA looked wary of drone deliveries: The original draft created by the Ministry also had a provision to allow deliveries via drones. However, when the draft was forwarded to the DGCA, it noted that “delivery of items with RPAS [drones] shall be prohibited, else it may start the competition for demonstration of different applications of RPAS [drones] by various operators”. Following the DGCA’s suggestion, Joint Secretary Amber Dubey agreed to the change and decided not to allow deliveries in the final order that was published in May.

DGCA’s response (in black) to a provision of the initial draft, reply (in red) by Amber Dubey | Source: Response to RTI filed by Srinivas Kodali

When we reached out to Dubey to know the concerns around delivery via drones that is keeping the DGCA wary, he told MediaNama that “MoCA [Civil Aviation Ministry] is following a step-wise approach”.  He also informed us that drone deliveries will be “examined” after the upcoming beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) experiments, where thirteen consortia have been given permission. “The ball is in their court now. We are waiting for the test results,” Dubey told us. MediaNama had, in June, reported exclusively on the approvals that the thirteen consortia had been granted.

Effort to not make drone activities ‘too restrictive’: In response to the initial draft, the DGCA had noted that a minimum distance should be defined which would be required to be maintained from static objects or humans during drone operations.

While agreeing to this recommendation, Dubey said that “Care should be taken that it should not be restrictive. The use of drones for crowd control by police may involve taking the drone through narrow lanes etc. where excessively restrictive norms may hamper police operations and may even be violated. One may note that as per the draft Notice, the state government entity bears full responsibility for safe operations of the drone”.

Amber Dubey’s suggestion (in red) to not make ops too restrictive | Source: Response to RTI filed by Srinivas Kodali

Why spraying was disallowed: When the government had announced the exemptions, they had still disallowed spraying from drones, even though several cities, including Prime Minister Modi’s own constituency, Varanasi, was spraying disinfectants out of drones. However, according to the RTI document, the DGCA said that if drones are to be used for spraying, “then the details of chemical to be sprayed may also be sought along with the relevant information to support that the same is not a hazardous material”. Following this suggestion, Dubey concluded that spraying may not be exempted. The final public order did not exempt spraying.

Why spraying disinfectants from drones wasn’t exempted | Source: Response to RTI filed by Srinivas Kodali

The beginnings of the GARUD portal

On April 22, Pradeep Singh Kharola, who is secretary at the Civil Aviation Ministry noted that “state Governments and other governmental agencies are using drones in the fight against Coronavirus (sic). In order to facilitate governmental agencies for this purpose, a simplified procedure has been developed and would be put in place temporarily.”

It appears from his comment that the “simplified” and “temporary” process was in reference to the GARUD portal which was launched in May to allow authorised government agencies to apply for fast track exemptions to deploy drones for COVID-19 surveillance. This is compounded by the fact that on April 27, Dubey noted that “Please work with NIC and expedite the online portal for providing exemptions to government entities”. He had also said that public notice will be released “after the beta version is tested fully and the portal goes live”.

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Probable reference to the GARUD portal | Source: Response to RTI filed by Srinivas Kodali

GARUD isn’t explicitly mentioned in the RTI documents, however. Incidentally, as per another RTI, which MediaNama had filed separately, no government agency had been granted conditional exemptions using the GARUD portal as of June 25.

Is anyone even using the GARUD portal? Source: Response to RTI filed by MediaNama

When we asked Dubey the possible reasons behind this, he said that “New changes take time to get universal acceptance”.  He said that many government entities “feel more comfortable sending us letters and emails than applying online on the GARUD portal”.

“At this stage our priority is to facilitate the use of drones for mass benefit use cases like Covid-19, anti-locust ops, pipeline/ powerline/ highway surveillance, national security, precision agriculture, SVAMITVA scheme for village mapping, etc.  The use of the GARUD portal will increase gradually,” Dubey told us in an emailed response. His response suggests that the GARUD portal can possibly be used beyond the pandemic since its current “objective” is to assist Government entities in seeking exemption from the government for COVID-19 related drone operations.

Also read: COVID-19 and drones

  1. Kerala & Telangana: In Kerala and Telangana, police turn to drones to enforce COVID-19 lockdown [read]
  2. Delhi: Inside the deployment of drones in Delhi to contain COVID-19 [read]
  3. Mumbai: Inside the deployment of drones in Mumbai to contain COVID-19 [read]
  4. Amritsar: Drones surveilling Amritsar could detect the distance between humans and send GPS coordinates of lockdown violators to police [read]
  5. GARUD portal: Government agencies can now legally deploy drones for COVID-19 surveillance [read]

MediaNama has also prepared an exhaustive guide to the drone industry in India, encompassing regulations, use cases, concerns around privacy and surveillance, and the way forward for the industry. The guide is here

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MediaNama’s mission is to help build a digital ecosystem which is open, fair, global and competitive.



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