New Delhi: Police in Delhi, Maharashtra, Punjab, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh have been flying drones for surveillance allegedly without permission from the Ministry of Civil Aviation’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), ThePrint has learnt.
Police in some states have even been flying drones made by a Chinese company called DJI, which do not comply with the DGCA requirements, claimed some drone-makers.
On 13 January, the ministry announced that drone owners/operators have to register their drones by 31 January so that the government can know how many and what kind of drones are being operated in the country. The ministry also said that those who fail to register will face action under the Indian Penal Code and Aircraft Act.
Under the DGCA’s Civil Aviation Requirements that came into effect from December 2018, all drone operators/makers need to obtain a Unique Identification Number (UIN) and a permit — known as the Unmanned Aircraft Operator Permit — to fly drones.
Ministry officials said that permits to operate drones can be taken on a portal called ‘Digital Sky’.
Only some agencies such as the National Technical Research Organisation, Aviation Research Centre and central intelligence agencies are not required to take permission to fly drones, a DGCA official, who did not wish to be named, told ThePrint in an email response.
The DGCA requires drone-makers to first take permission from it through ‘Digital Sky’. For the drones to communicate and be tracked through the ‘Digital Sky’ portal, it needs to be compatible with a DGCA software called ‘No Permission-No Take Off’ (NPNT).
‘Police permission sufficient to fly drones’
Drone-makers and operators who have worked with the police told ThePrint they get permission only from police to operate the services. Even when police fly their own drones they do not ask for permission from the DGCA, they added.
A drone operator, who has worked with the Mumbai Police, said that a senior police officer approving the drone operation is usually considered sufficient.
Aakash Sinha, founder-CEO of Delhi-based drone-maker and operator, Omnipresent Robot Tech, echoed similar sentiments. He said the approval to operate the drones is given by the police and permission is not sought from anyone else.
Sinha had provided drone services for the Delhi Police several years ago to survey projects and to monitor the situation after the 2014 riots in East Delhi’s Trilokpuri.
An employee of Bengaluru-based drone-maker Asteria Aerospace, whose majority stakes are owned by Reliance Industries, also said that police don’t ask for permission to fly drones.
The employee added that the Punjab and West Bengal police have used drones made by his company.
Asked about police flying drones in the country without permission, civil aviation ministry spokesperson Rajeev Jain said that police usually hire a third-party to operate drones and such operators do not take permission from the DGCA.
But Jain added that after 31 January, it won’t be possible for the police to operate drones that are not registered.
An aviation ministry official, who didn’t want to be named, said the DGCA isn’t aware of third-party drone operators and whether they are working for the police.
“It is risky to not have drones registered with the DGCA, especially when police hire third-party drone operators,” the official added.
Police say permission taken
Additional DCP, Delhi Police, Rohit Meena, however, told ThePrint that “relevant permissions” were taken to use drones at locations like Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan.
But when asked if police take permission to use drones for protests or large gatherings, Meena only said “whoever has concerns, can approach us”.
Delhi Police Public Relations Officer (PRO) Mandeep Singh Randhawa said, “Drones are rarely used for surveillance and there is no privacy concern for citizens.”
A senior Punjab Police officer said they use drones to monitor traffic and large gatherings during melas and they don’t need permission to use them.
UP’s Additional Director General of Police (112 Emergency Services) Asim Arun said they use two kinds of drones — the one made by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and the other manufactured by the Chinese DJI.
Arun said the DRDO-manufactured drones comply with the law as they are made by a government organisation, but the ones made by the DJI “probably don’t follow the law”.
DJI drones are used for creative purposes like aerial photography, Arun added.
‘UP, Gujarat, Mumbai Police frequent users of drones’
Kruthi Aramamamada, AGM (Marketing) of Maharashtra-based drone-maker ideaForge, said UP Police are the most frequent users of drones made by the company. She also said the company sells drones to the Gujarat, Rajasthan and Mumbai Police.
Around 700 ideaForge drones have been deployed across the country, some of which are being used by paramilitary forces and various state police forces, she said.
Eight ideaForge drones are currently being used by the UP Police to monitor crowd in the ongoing Magh Mela being held in Prayagraj, Aramamamada added.
Concern over foreign-made drones
It is illegal to fly drones in India that do not have the DGCA’s NPNT software, said Lt. Cdr. John Livingstone (retd), a former Indian Navy officer and founder of Noida-based drone-making company Johnnette Technologies.
Aramamamada said foreign-made drones need to make changes to their drone hardware and software to be able to use the NPNT software. She added that so far, the Chinese DJI has not made those changes in their drones to incorporate the DGCA’s NPNT software.
But aviation ministry spokesperson Jain said the priority now is to first know the number of drones operating in the country and get all of them registered with the DGCA. “Concerns over NPNT compliance will be addressed later,” he added.