Are India’s new drone rules aimed at facilitating operations or a gateway to mass surveillance?

Drone Rules 2021 was introduced in India last week which relaxed many restrictions introduced a few years ago. The government has also reduced permission fees to operate drones in the country and excluded the requirement for a safety clearance before obtaining any registration or license. The update facilitates drone operations in the country and is designed to benefit different sectors looking to deploy unmanned aircraft for emergency response, surveillance, geospatial mapping and law enforcement. However, the new drone rules have introduced privacy concerns as it is unclear how to report misuse. The rules are also speculated to increase citizen vigilance to a great extent.

On this week’s episode of the Orbital Gadgets 360 podcast, presenter Akhil Arora speaks with Associate Adviser of the Internet Freedom Foundation – Surveillance and Transparency Anushka Jain, Skye Air Mobility co-founder, Swapnik Jakkampuddi, and founder and chief technology officer for wildlife Shashank Srinivasan to talk about the scope of the new drone rules and how they can impact our lives.

We started with the reforms introduced to the new drone rules to facilitate the use of drones between companies and government agencies. Last year, start-ups such as Dunzo, Swiggy and Zomato received approval from the General Directorate of Civil Aviation (DGCA) to deliver test drones in the country. Dunzo also earlier this year started delivering COVID-19 drugs and vaccines by pilot drones in Telangana. This will all be much easier with the new rules in place. Likewise, Swiggy launched tests for drone food deliveries.

Jakkampuddi of drone delivery firm Skye Air Mobility details some of the biggest hurdles the companies faced during the first tests beyond the visual line of sight (BLVOS) that are expected to be eradicated under the new rules. He also claims that the new rules make operations easier for new drone pilots.

However, Srinivasan of geospatial data conservation consultancy Technology for Wildlife points out that the new drone rules don’t give any clarity about how they could help individuals and people like farmers can start using drones instead of choosing third parties. He also emphasizes that the rules do not address issues related to flying drones within national parks and tiger reserves, which was part of previous regulations.

Jain, of the non-governmental digital rights organization, Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF), also highlights several privacy issues that exist in the new drone rules. She also predicts that by facilitating the use of drones among individuals, companies and authorities, the rules could expand mass surveillance in the country. There are also privacy concerns, as drones can easily be used to watch over others. During state blockades due to the increase in COVID-19 cases earlier this year, police departments in several states also used drones to conduct local surveillance and collect data from individuals to ensure that the given restrictions were followed. This, however, also affected the privacy of many people.

You can listen to the full discussion by clicking the play button in the Spotify player embedded above.

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