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The govt is normalising drone use, one step at a time

Six years ago, the Indian government had banned the use of drones, calling them a security threat. Today, drones are being pressed into all sorts of applications, including capturing aerial images of “critical infrastructure” facilities such as thermal power plants — considered crucial for the nation’s economy and security. So, what prompted this seismic shift in the government’s attitude? Why does the government trust drones so much now?

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic saw drones dotting skylines of several Indian states — Delhi, Maharashtra, Punjab, Kerala and Telangana, to name a few — to surveil streets and ensure that people were not violating lockdown guidelines. Drones of various capabilities were deployed. In Amritsar for instance, drones were equipped with an AI-based software that was capable of detecting the distance between two human beings, from 400 feet away. In Telangana, drones were equipped with thermal cameras to be able to detect people’s temperatures. The efficacy of these solutions is unclear, and questionable, but again, it also symbolises the idea of tech solutionism — the idea that tech is the answer to everything.

Even before the pandemic, drones were used as a surveillance tools on a number of occasions, and for varied purposes —  to surveil protests, and even polling booths during elections — and the government is already planning to start remote drone operations which open up use cases such as surveilling far off places, and making deliveries.

The idea behind these moves seems simple: make drones so ubiquitous that people simply get used to them.

Recent deployment of drones by government bodies

Four different government institutions — only in October — were allowed to deploy drones for various purposes, including thermal power plants operated by the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC).

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  • NTPC (National Thermal Power Corporation) obtained a conditional exemption from the regulator on October 19 for carrying out research and inspection activities at three of its power stations in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.  Drones manufactured by India-based ideaForge Technology have been allowed to carry out this inspection. Before that, the Odisha Mining Corporation was permitted to use drones for conducting aerial surveys of three of its mines in the state.
  • Drones will also be used for gathering geographical data for the upcoming Delhi-Meerut Regional Rapid Transit System. The data gathered from the drones will be used to develop a web-based Geographical Information System (GIS) platform for the project. The drone that will be used here — SPIDEX-600 — has been developed by Bengaluru-based Edall Systems.
  • CEPT University (Ahmedabad) was allowed to use drones to gather data for a research project about energy use in urban areas. One of the tasks of this project is to gather administrative data from urban local bodies which will be supplemented with data available from other sources including, digital maps, and GIS planning layers.

Eye in the sky

Even though the actual benefits of using drones are yet to be established, the government has used it not just for COVID-related activities, but to track and surveil people, upon sensing a ‘law and order’ disharmony:

  • A drone was sighted hovering over the Hathras victim’s house. in broad daylight, as members of the media, and several opposition politicians met with the grieving family.
  • Drones were also used on the streets of Ayodhya as the Supreme Court was about to pronounce its judgement on the Ayodhya land dispute case.
  • Drones were flown over people people protesting against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act

These are only a handful of examples, but they are enough to prove that the government believes drones are a practical and realistic way to keep an eye on its citizens. But there are problems: (i) we don’t know what kind of data was captured by these drones, and (ii) how administrations might potentially use this data.

The government is also busy facilitating the development of a drone ecosystem in the country. People who want to fly these drones — known as “drone pilots” — will be able to get training at special schools being set up by both government bodies and private drone companies. There are also guidelines for drone insurance.

Govt bodies are preferring Indian made drones: There has been a notable trend in permits granted for drone usage since July. Since the escalation of tensions between India and China at their border, drones made by the Chinese company DJI — which sells the most commonly-available drones in India — have not been chosen for use at government-owned facilities. In July, the government had allowed the Indian Oil Corporation to use DJI-made drones for aerial surveillance of its pipelines. This was the last time — since then, no government organisation has gone with DJI’s drones and have instead opted for Indian-made ones.

Legitimising drones in the absence of safeguards

There is almost no public oversight when it comes to the use of drones in India. This is largely because of the absence of laws that govern personal data, and a lack of transparency from government bodies that are using these devices. For instance, when MediaNama filed an RTI asking the Delhi police about its use of drones to monitor CAA protests in December 2019, we got a surprising answer — the Delhi police told us it never used drones for this purpose.

  • Opaque manner of usage: Responses to RTI applications filed by MediaNama had established that Delhi police had hired drones — instead of buying them — from the open market to film the Northeast Delhi riots in February this year. This allowed the police to not issue a request for proposal (RFP), which would have had made public details about the drones, their technical specifications and so on. In the absence of such a document, it is difficult to say what kind of drones were used, and what their capabilities were.
  • Lack of accountability: We’ve seen that police forces have sometimes used drones without taking permissions from the Ministry of Civil Aviation or the DGCA, the airline regulator. Even when they have permissions, sometimes these orders are not made public. The only reason we know that drones will map land between Delhi and Meerut is because the Ministry had made that exemption letter public. In the case of Delhi police’s drone usage in February, no authorisation letter was given in writing. As pointed out earlier, the absence of written orders usually leads to zero accountability.
  • No privacy law in place: Almost all of drone usage is happening in the absence of a privacy law. Take the Draft Unmanned Aircraft System Rules, 2020 for instance: the draft mentions privacy only briefly, to say that drones shouldn’t invade the privacy of people or properties. However, apart from this provision, there are no procedural safeguards laid down in the draft. Even the personal data protection bill, which is currently being deliberated upon by a joint Parliamentary committee has carved out exemptions for government agencies when it comes to adhering to its provisions. This suggests that government institutions like the Delhi Police could potentially be able to collect, store and process biometric data of Indians without procedural safeguards.

Parallels to facial recognition technology

Similar to drones, facial recognition technology systems too are being widely deployed by the Indian government, several state governments and police departments. The National Crime Records Bureau is currently working towards building a national facial recognition system, and only very recently revealed that it wants to tests the system on mask-wearing faces, and generate “comprehensive biometric reports”. A number of airports in the country have introduced facial recognition based boarding solutions. The private sector too has joined this party: we had reported that popular tea chain Chaayos had deployed a facial recognition system, and was initially running it while not even mentioning how it uses facial data anywhere in its privacy policy.

MediaNama has 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 available here

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