COVID-19: Kerala Police uses drones to keep an eye on those who flout the lockdown

Kerala Police’s Project Eagle Eye uses close to 350 drones to track those flouting the rules of COVID-19 lockdown

Updated - April 14, 2020 01:07 pm IST

Published - April 13, 2020 05:05 pm IST - Kochi:

A policeman talks to a man hiding behind the rocks

A policeman talks to a man hiding behind the rocks

When the Kerala Police launched ‘Project Eagle Eye’, to use drones (unmanned aerial vehicles) for surveillance during the lockdown, the intent was to use the technology as a tool to complement manual surveillance. There was also the expectation that media coverage about drone surveillance would be a deterrent to possible violators. They weren’t wrong – on both counts. Over the last two weeks, drones have proven their efficiency particularly in inaccessible and unfamiliar terrain.

Men running away as they see the drone

Men running away as they see the drone

“Initially the cops just went along since they had orders. But a couple of days in to it, they were convinced about how this could work. Now we get calls from the police asking us to join surveillance teams, daily,” says Abin Ajay, a drone operator who volunteers for the Kerala Police; hailing from Karunagapally, near Kollam, he works with the Karunagapally, Chavara and Oachira police stations.

“Drones give us much more of a wider perspective – we see a bigger picture. Especially, in rural areas where people tend to gather in crowds or indulge in group activities, more than in towns. Using drones has definitely been a deterrent here in Kottayam district,” says Jaidev G, District Police Chief, Kottayam.

Sooraj Live Media demonstrating his drone to policemen in Kottayam

Sooraj Live Media demonstrating his drone to policemen in Kottayam

Close to 350 drone operators affiliated with organisations such as Skylimit, Professional Aerial Cinematographers Association(PACA), Drone Association of Kerala and others are volunteering with the State police force for surveillance and patrolling.

Each police station in the State’s 14 districts has access to at least one drone operator. “Drones are especially effective in topography which is inaccessible — pocket roads and open fields where jeeps can’t go,” says drone operator Subin Venugopal, who volunteers with the Vaikom police station. A drone is stealthy and inconspicuous, by the time people realise the presence of one, the video would have been captured and relayed to the patrol team.

Subin Venugopal

Subin Venugopal

“The mere sight of the drone gets people back indoors,” Subin says. Open spaces – fields and playgrounds – are the problem areas where people tend to gather, ignoring the advisory.

Vantage point

Drones can travel up to distances of one to five kilometres and a height of 500 metres, depending on the model, away from where the operator is, helping the police force implement the lockdown. “People don’t know where this is being operated from, and invariably, some run straight into the waiting hands of the cops,” Subin says laughing. Interestingly, drones (operators) and the police have had a difficult relationship in the past – especially in cities such as Kochi that have specific no-fly zones.

This is not the first time drone operators in Kerala have stepped in to help; during the floods of 2018 and 2019, they helped find people who were trapped and even made food drops using drones. Sooraj (Live Media) Sukumaran, who helped during the 2018 floods, says, “Those days we worked independently, the requirement was different. The authorities did not need as many people as now.” He is the co-ordinator for Kottayam, working with the police there, in Alappuzha and Pathanamthitta too.

Abin Ajay

Abin Ajay

The idea was mooted by the Kerala Police Cyber Dome, the technological research and development arm of the police department: the use of technology for effective policing is a part of its mandate. When the Cyber Dome contacted Sooraj and other drone operators enquiring how they could help with the ‘Break the Chain’ campaign, Sooraj thought this would be a good way.

“The idea of Operation Eagle Eye was presented to the Additional Director General of Police (ADGP) Manoj Abraham, who gave us the go ahead and it was implemented,” says a police officer from the Cyber Dome. “It has been effective in places that we cannot easily access, and complements manual surveillance too especially when illicit liquor is being brewed or there is a gathering of people,” he adds. According to him plans include using drones for thermal sensing and spraying sanitisers.

Following the decision, a core team of drone operators from across the State that includes besides Sooraj, Jasif A, Akhil P, Anoob AB, Nibin DR, and Sooraj P Nath was formed. This team coordinates the operators’ activities such as deployment, duty entry, and scrutiny.

When a drone flies away...
  • Soaring temperature make the drones vulnerable to damage, causing the battery to get overheated and damaged. The drones used are, usually, DJI Phantom and DJI Mavic Pro. The “Then there are the fly away drones which either land in water bodies or in fields or simply get lost. Loss of equipment is a worry for us. It is difficult to get spares given the lockdown – these are imported. Even otherwise there are issues importing these and their spares, with custom duty on them,” says Sooraj Live Media. The cheapest drone costs around Rs. 1 lakh, loss of equipment means a loss of livelihood post-lockdown. “It would be helpful if there is some compensation for those who have lost or damaged their machines while doing this work,” he adds.

The drone operators, working in rotation, have been allotted police stations near their homes so it saves them the commute to the police station, sometimes they work with more than one police station. Since the work is voluntary, with no payment, they don’t want to spend too much – fuel – on a trip. “Right now we are unemployed, so it makes sense not to rack up expenses,” says Sooraj Live Media.

The drone operators who are mainly hobbyists, wedding photographers and/or those working in the film industries, as fallout of the lockdown, have no income.“We have been doing this for the last 15 days; initially both parties – us and the police – didn’t know how the technology would be used. We thought it would be for three-four days to create awareness through media coverage, but now it is turning out be an effective tool for policing,” says Palakkad-based Sooraj P Nath, co-ordinator for the area.

Desperate times, desperate measures

One of the challenges the drone operators face is the geography and topography - for instance there is Palakkad which shares a porous border with Tamil Nadu making surveillance a challenge. “There are so many roads – pocket roads, kucha roads – which make surveillance impossible. There are forests, hillocks, the railway tracks...all these factors pose a challenge,” says Nath. In Kasaragod, the beach area is tough says Ashwin KC, one of the youngest drone operators at 22. “The density of population is very high, the houses are close and road is right in front. Now people know when they see a drone...they make a dash for it,” he says.

How they work
  • Each drone operator is accompanied by a team of 3-4 policemen.
  • They work in two shifts – 9 am – 11 am and 4 pm – 7 pm.
  • The work is voluntary – no payments.
  • Gloves and masks are compulsory for drone operators.
  • Cities such as Kochi have specific no-fly zones.

Kerala Police are putting these videos to good use in other ways such as posting them on social media to spread the word.

One of Abin’s videos shot in Vallikunnam, near Alappuzha, is among the videos that have gone viral. Posted on Kerala Police’ official Facebook page the collage of videos, captured by drones, shows groups of people scattering and running for cover – hiding behind trees, ducking for cover, covering their faces with lungis or t-shirts – as the drone flies overhead. “As a result now police stations across the State are asking drone operators for their own ‘viral’ videos,” says Abin.

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