Opinion

Drones to the rescue

Lalit Gupta / Nandita Pegu | Updated on May 05, 2020

Unmanned aerial vehicles are a boon to emergency services. Remove restrictions of their use and let them fly

During Covid-19, we see unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or drones) being used for critical services. These include monitoring crowds, disinfecting contaminated areas, thermal screening of groups to detect fever, broadcasting information and delivering medical supplies.

UAVs provide significant advantages over traditional methods of operations. They minimise physical risks while reducing considerably response time and costs. They also help enhance disaster resiliency. Drones can fly at low altitudes and can reach places where big aircraft can’t. They provide a significant cost advantage in terms of operation and maintenance.

A useful tech

What makes drones highly efficient is their mobility coupled with the capacity to carry payloads such as cameras and sensors., along with in-built advanced navigation systems and basic safety features. It is easier and safer to guide them accurately to inaccessible areas.

Drones can capture real-time high-resolution images of disaster zones while covering vast areas in a single operation, generating a vast amount of data. This allows response teams to map areas and conduct risk and damage assessment promptly from remote locations. This also helps in locating victims in real-time, enabling faster and safer search and rescue operations. This expedites relief efforts while making the response more targeted.

Globally, UAVs have been used by various aid organisations during natural disasters. In India, the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), an apex body for disaster management, used drones for the first time during the Uttarakhand floods in 2013, and subsequently during the Kerala floods in 2018.

UAVs are also used to transport emergency medical supplies, first aid and essential food items to remote and inaccessible areas for addressing supply chain gaps. Following in the footsteps of Rwanda and Ghana, which use drones to deliver blood and essential medicines to far-flung clinics, Telangana is also working on ‘Medicine from the sky’ project with the World Economic Forum and Healthnet Global to use drones for delivering medical supplies to remote areas of the State.

Fire-fighting drones have proven effective in managing wildfires or structure fires along with conducting search and rescue missions and minimising casualties. Fire departments in many countries have already inducted drones as part of their operations. Mumbai’s fire department is considering using drones to assist its personnel in operations. Drones are also being used by law enforcement agencies for crowd surveillance, traffic management and for maintaining security at large events. The Kerala police is deploying drones in the state to track violators of current lockdown orders to fight Covid-19.

Conducive policies needed

Due to restrictive regulations, drone operations have been impacted in India. Government agencies providing drone services require to be 'No Permission No Takeoff (NPNT) compliant' and take

permissions for operations like any other commercial aerial operators. This is not practical under emergencies when the agencies must act immediately to conduct life-saving operations.

The government should consider exempting such agencies from NPNT and Digital Sky restrictions through a one-time standard procedure and by issuing a necessary directive in this regard. Necessary steps should be taken to ensure their access to the best drone technology for smooth operations while ensuring safety and security protocols.

Recent constructive steps by the Government such as the announcement of six green zones for unhindered drone operations near six metros and organising stakeholder consultation on broadening of eligibility criteria for organisations to train drone pilots are encouraging and will provide a boost to the drone ecosystem.

However, to ensure the prevalence of UAVs especially for emergency services, the Government must look at practical and concrete regulations and policies to allow for their unfettered application for emergency management.

While easing out the policy for emergency services, the Government may consider prohibitions outlining unauthorised activities and operation in the immediate area of manned aircraft and reinforcing that the operation of UAVs will be in accordance with the limitations of the machine. This will revolutionise the way emergency services are delivered in India.

Gupta is a former Joint Director General of Civil Aviation and chief advisor of Aviation Technology Forum of India where Pegu is a public policy consultant

Published on May 04, 2020

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