Ministry of Civil Aviation, GoI (MoCA) Announces Exemptions for Drones for COVID-19 Response: Observations, Comments, Suggestions and Guidelines
In a small win for the drone community, MoCA, Government of India announced a process for seeking exemptions for using drones for COVID-19 response, on 2nd May 2020, almost a month after nation-wide implementation of drones were instituted for COVID-19 by various states and local police, where more than 300 local drone pilots stepped forward and worked hand in hand with the police. However, having a legal system in place assures of safe and responsible drone operations and hopes to bring some discipline in the drone operations during emergencies.
One aspect which even these rules have completely overlooked are about the security and ethical use of the data collected by the drones – how do we ensure that data collected by the drones is used only for public good, without harming or adversely affecting any person or community – how do we ensure that the photos or videos from the drones do not make a mockery of the clueless common people who are not even consulted each time these policies are drafted – how do we protect these image and video files to be misrepresented by the media as a well-deserved punishment of the lockdown offenders – and how do we ensure that the data is being used strictly for COVID-19 response and not further used for jeopardizing rights of citizens on their personal identity or property, without their explicit consent to do so.
In a stylized system called ‘GARUDA’ (means Eagle in Sanskrit), or Government Authorisation for Relief Using Drones’ was announced by Ministry’s social media handles – consists of an online approval system, undertakings and forms. According to the post: ‘Ministry of Civil Aviation and Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) sets up GARUD Scheme (Government Authorization for Relief Using Drones) to fastrack exemptions from Civil Aviation Requirements to Government entities using drones in the lock down for COVID-19 related purposes e.g. for aerial surveillance, photography and public announcements.’ It further states, ‘The Government entity may operate drones on their own or choose to employ a company to deploy their services to the entity. The exemption however may only be granted to battery operated and multi rotor aircrafts only.’
Mr. Amber Dubey, Joint Secretary at Ministry of Civil Aviation in his LinkedIn post states, ‘The portal was designed, developed, beta-tested and launched by NIC’s Vikram Singh in a record period of eight days. This weekend has been a sheer torture with last minute glitches and pre-launch jitters, but totally worth it. Great work by several hard-working and committed professionals at MoCA, DGCA, AAI and NIC, who soldiered on despite various constraints.’
Rajan Luthra, Chairman of FICCI Committee on Drones, stated that FICCICommittee on #Drones held its 3rd meeting on 22 April 2020 involving over 40 industry stakeholders. Incorporating the inputs received and collating use cases for #covid19 response from India and across the world, a report containing recommendations on important requirements of service providers and end users was made to the relevant authorities within a short time. An intense effort led by MoCA, associations such as FICCI and Drone Federation of India, the interim exemptions were drafted, circulated through at least 40 companies, before being finally declared.
Ministry of Civil Aviation finally issued a Public Notice (No. AV-22011/2/2020-SDnIT-MOCA) for ‘Conditional Exemption to Government entities for COVID-19 related RPAS operations‘. This notice explains that the use of Remotely Piloted Aerial Vehicles, or drones, can aid Government entities in addressing the challenges posed by COVID-19.
This conditional exemption is limited to drones deployed by a government entity (Central or State Government or District Administration or any Government institution) for using drones for aerial surveillance, aerial photography and public announcements related to COVID-19 operations. This also means that no drone volunteers or volunteer organization can work independently, and must not do so, no matter what.
This exemption is applicable only for using battery-operated multi-rotor drones, with maximum take-off weight of less than 25 kg and not fixed-wing or autonomous drones. Only drones with either UIN (Unique Identification Number) or DAN (Drone Acknowledgment Number) issued by DGCA are allowed to fly.
Spraying or carrying any substance using this drone is strictly not permitted, and this must give one more reason for civic bodies to STOP BUYING SPRAYING DRONES for disinfecting streets, besides the simple fact that outdoor spraying does not work and has no scientific proof to claim that it does.
The government entities can hire drone service providers – but the responsibility of security verification and capability assessment of these providers, as well as safety of the drone missions lie entirely with the government entity deploying the drones. They will also be responsible for any third party liability in case of any damage caused by the drone. They are expected to maintain the custody of the drones at all times. Each drone flight details have to be uploaded on DGCA’s Digital Sky platform within 7 days of flights. All incidents or accidents have to be reported as well. Other rules such as flying VLOS, not around airports or defence or international borders or over key buildings and cultural heritages are still applicable.
The Head of the Government Institution will have to commit to an undertaking that they will hold complete responsibility and a Gazetted Officer assigned as the Authorized Signatory will seek exemptions and execute the rest of the process. The notice states that any violation of the provisions of this Public Notice shall make the Conditional Exemption null and void, and shall lead to penal action as per law.
The Strange Clause
The strangest clause in this Notice is the clause 7.k. ‘All RPA flights shall be immediately terminated when the battery reserve is reduced to 15 minutes’. It would mean that if a commonly available commercial drone – such as Dji’ Phantom or Mavic are used, which typically have a flight time of 20-25 minutes, can fly only for few minutes to do what they are expected to do.
Either this clause needs to be rechecked and corrected, or it simply means that this is one more attempt at discouraging common drone owners to stay out of government-related operations. It also gives a specific boost to Indian drone manufacturers, who do manufacture drones with flight times of 40-50 minutes – albeit being extremely expensive, relatively unaffordable to the local drone pilots, but surely affordable for the government institutions.
The GARUDA Portal
GARDUA Portal seems to have the following steps:
1. Fill Form B – Declaration by the head of the Government entity:
1) I, (Name of the Head of the Government entity) solemnly declare on behalf of my organisation that we shall ensure complete adherence to the terms and conditions mentioned in the Public Notice No AV-22011/2/2020-SDnIT-MoCA dated 02 May 2020 issued by Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA), Government of India for COVID-19 related RPAS operations.
2) I hereby authorise the following person to be the Authorised Signatory on behalf of our organization for submitting our application for Exemption and for day-to-day coordination with the Government of India and the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA): Name of the Authorised Signatory (Not below Class 1 Gazetted Officer rank), Mobile number of the Authorised Signatory, Email of the Authorised Signatory
3) I am enclosing herewith an attested copy of the Government issued identity card of the Authorised Signatory
4) I shall report any violation of the terms and conditions mentioned in the said Public Notice, promptly by email to email@example.com. We shall also submit a detailed incident report in Form F thru DGCA’s Digital Sky Platform.
2. Keep Government issued government card ready
3. Registration of a New User – this shows a Form A to be filled by the Gazetted Officer assigned as the ‘Authorized Signatory’
1) Type of Government entity: Central Government/ State Government/ Educational institute/ Others
2) Name of the Ministry/ State:
All possible ministries are in the drop down – (including Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports and Ministry of Textiles, wonder why?)
3) Mention ‘Full name of Government entity (e.g. ministry of environment, department of health, district magistrate, district police headquarters, municipal corporation, government owned university etc.)’
4) Full name of the head of the Government entity and Authorized signatory, their respective contact details, and Id cards.
4. Confirmation: I hereby confirm that I, am the duly appointed Authorised Signatory of for submitting this application form. All information provided herein is true to the best of my knowledge and belief. I understand that submission of any false information shall make the Conditional Exemption (if issued) null and void and shall lead to penal action as per applicable law. If we receive the conditional exemption, the RPA operations conducted by my organisation shall be in full compliance with the terms and conditions mentioned in the Public Notice AV-22011/2/2020-SDnIT-MoCA dated 02 May 2020 issued by Government of India.
So the next steps for the any government institution who wants to deploy drones for COVID-19 response are:
1. Define your Needs: Why do I need drones? What value will drones add? Will they actually solve a problem?
2. Ask again, do you really need drones for this?
3. If yes, research which drone will truly solve this problem – at what cost.
4. Select the locations where you want the drones to become operational – where you really, really want them to be deployed.
5. Chart out the frequency and number of drone flights that may be needed to do what you intend to do.
6. Ask, is the drone purchase in this situation justified, or can we lease it?
7. Call for Fair Proposals and evaluate them strictly. Be completely unbiased in this evaluation – as the entire responsibility of every success or failure lies solely on you.
8. Ask for any safety studies, look at the safety records, and ask for test flights.
9. Ask for the end-to-end processes and systems – including data management, mission management, risk management, safety management, incidence management, management of community rights and ethical operations.
10. If these systems and processes don’t exist with the service provider, make sure they make them.
11. Spread a word in the community about ‘Why we are using drones’ BEFORE you fly the drones.
12. Be sensitive about what is shared with Media and ensure that the context of public service is not lost while sensationalizing a story about drone operations.
13. Ensure that specific MoU and Agreements are drafted that elaborate the following points:
a) Safe drone operations
b) Ethical data use
c) Responsible data sharing
d) Budgets and timelines
e) Incidence reporting and management
Look Before You Leap
Drones are sometimes extremely important, other times over-glamorized by the organizations who would benefit the most from the sale of a drone. It is extremely important that wisdom is retained and decision-making is based on pure, intelligent, unbiased logic and sound understanding of basic principles of quality, safety, ethics and responsibility.
International Code of Conduct and Guidelines on use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles for Humanitarian Applications are available at www.uavcode.org
Read this article by WeRobotics: So You’re Thinking of Using Drones in Response to COVID-19? Why? and refer this chart.
For any further help, write to Dr Ruchi Saxena, Director, India Flying Labs and Caerobotics:
This article was published first on Caerobotics website here, it’s been republished here with the author’s permission