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Telangana has a new tech solution: It wants instant deployment of drones for policing

Courtesy: Cyberabad Police twitter | Representational image

Keeping with the state’s tradition of extensive use of technology, Telangana’s IT Minister KT Rama Rao has a new pitch: use drones to curb crimes against women. Earlier this week, Rao proposed that drones become “first responders”, and reach a scene of crime — equipped with sirens and cameras. The aerial devices would be able to reach the spot much quicker than the police, he felt. “If that drone goes there, the person who is committing the crime will flee,” Rao said.

“It is imperative that we stay at the cutting edge of technology, that we remain proactive and not reactive,” Rao noted, and said that the state should talk to the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), about its plans to deploy these drones instantaneously in select areas. “As soon as one presses the SOS button, the drone should go as the first responder,” he added.

Why this is currently not possible, and could have massive repercussions

Rao’s remarks don’t fit well with the current framework for drone usage. They could also set precedent for an almost overwhelming deployment of drones across the country.

The idea that drones can somehow curb crimes against women by being first at the scene of crime is, on paper, a noble one. However, the risk of function creep — drones being used for purposes not originally intended — runs high. There are enough instances where tech-based solutions proposed by the government have outlived the problems they set out to solve — Aarogya Setu, originally developed as a contact tracing app, becoming a crucial cog in the wheel of the Digital Health Stack is a case in point.

There are beureaucratic and technical limitations as well. Currently, government bodies are allowed to deploy drones after receiving a conditional exemption from the DGCA — and the process usually takes time, sometimes weeks. Of course, there have been instances when police forces, such as the Delhi Police, have flown surveillance drones without getting a clearance from the DGCA — or at least, the exemption letter was never made public in those cases.

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All this however, is only a stopgap measure. India is currently building a platform called Digital Sky — a project that has seen multiple delays — with the aim that it would someday automate clearances for deploying drones. The idea is that a drone will only be able to fly after receiving an automatic clearance from the Digital Sky portal.

However, even there, there is a major issue: When the portal starts working, a request for drone clearances has to be applied for 24 hours in advance of actual deployment — a provision which several industry people believe defeats the entire process of automating these permissions.

To that end, what Rao is proposing runs into two main hurdles:

  1. India doesn’t currently have a system which allows for instantaneous drone deployment — even though there have been exceptions. This is because the government aims to keeps a tight grip over the drone ecosystem as it sees drones as potential security threats. Readers should note that India had initially banned the use of civilian drones in 2014, and only formally legalised them two years ago.
  2. Even when there is a technical solution ready for instantaneous drone deployment, it still needs a buffer time of 24 hours — somewhat antithetical to Rao’s idea, which involves drones reaching a scene of crime within minutes.

MediaNama’s take: Instantaneous deployment, a slippery slope

Even if one were to assume that the state will somehow be allowed this instantaneous deployment,  it will undoubtedly set a dangerous precedent — one that will give Telangana’s police enormous liberty to deploy these surveillance tools. And it would be remiss to forget that this is a police force which has often used measures on its citizens, which activists have deemed disproportionate — for instance, it is known to demand people their biometric data, randomly, often without a warrant, acting purely on “instinct”.

It also begs an important question: where will it stop? Today, the Telangana government wants a free hand at deploying drones. Tomorrow, another state government could make the same request. Soon enough, these surveillance devices will become so prevalent that citizens will get used to them perpetually hovering above their heads — something that the central government is perhaps already working towards, as we’ve argued here.

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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