Updated: April 16, 2020 9:03:59 pm
Nearly two years after the calamitous floods in 2018 when they helped the Kerala Police to rescue agencies in locating those trapped in their homes, hundreds of drone operators and technicians in the state joined hands once again for a public cause: tracking those evading the lockdown put in place to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Over the last three weeks, the Cyberdome division of the Kerala Police has enlisted the services of over 300 drone operators as part of ‘Project Eagle Eye’ to maintain tight surveillance especially in areas where police vans find it difficult to physically clamp down on violators. The idea was mooted by the Cyberdome division and it was percolated to district police chiefs who scouted for volunteers who can operate drones.
In towns and cities, the police workforce is strong enough to enforce the lockdown by keeping a tight vigil on major roads and highways. But in far-off villages and high-range areas, the police force is strained for more boots on the ground. That’s where the drones come in. Used mostly in films, wedding photography and events, the drones, depending on the model, can traverse as far as five to six kilometres and as high as 500 metres to provide real-time images and videos of lockdown violators assembling in groups.
At the faintest sight of the drones hovering over their heads, footage tuned to comic music by the Kerala Police showed people scurrying off into different corners, trying to hide their faces and evade arrest by the police.
Anoop, one of the six state-level coordinators working in tandem with the Cyberdrome officials said, “We’ve had very good results. For example, two drones can survey a radius of 4-6 kilometres in under two minutes. An officer with a jeep cannot do that. In places like Ponnani in Malappuram district, police used to come out in huge numbers violating the lockdown. But after we used drones for a few days, they have stopped coming out.”
Another area where they have had great results is cornering people engaged in illicit brewing of alcohol. With toddy shops and liquor outlets shut down since March 25, people in several parts of the state had resorted to brewing hooch and arrack inside forests and atop hills. Such actions have drastically come down after drones began to be used in such sensitive locations, added Anoop.
Abraham, a freelance drone surveillance operator who worked with the police in Muvattupuzha town in Ernakulam district during the initial few days, said visuals on a real-time basis can be transferred to the local cops with which they can track down the violators and impose fines.
“When people hear the sounds of the drones, they start running. But we can see clearly which roads they are using, whether they will turn left or right. We can give such information to the police,” he said, adding that the effectiveness of the drones is higher in rural areas.
But there is a flip-side to it. Since the drone operators have been working on a voluntary basis, they have had to spend on fuel and food themselves, incurring a huge cost at a time when their incomes have come to a standstill. Since the wedding, film and event season is in limbo, they have had to press pause on their livelihoods. A bigger problem was on sourcing spare-parts in case of crashes.
Said Anoop, “The idea was to employ the drones for 2-3 days of the lockdown as part of awareness. But somehow it got extended to 21 days as it was becoming very effective. At the moment, shops are shut and spare-parts are not available. In the event of a crash or any physical problem, we can’t afford to repair them. These are high-quality drones which cost Rs 2-3 lakhs.”
With the lockdown getting extended till May 3, the use of drones has temporarily been restricted to the border areas with states like Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Our volunteers have withdrawn drones from a majority of the districts, said Anoop, adding that the issue has been brought to the notice of the police and the government.
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