Air force veteran MJ Augustine, founder of AutoMicroUAS Autotech, among the pioneers of drone manufacturing in the country Credit: EastMojo image

Healthcare professionals, relief workers and drone manufacturers have recommended extensive use of drones in India’s battle against COVID-19 and other pandemics that could arise in the future. This they believe will help in protecting frontline workers avoid unnecessary exposure to infection and also in monitoring law and order.

Air force veteran, group captain MJ Augustine feels that this is the right time to maximise the benefits offered by the drone technology platform. Together with his spouse, Augustine is founder of AutoMicroUAS Autotech, pioneers among the drone manufacturers in the country.

“Our company is working on technologies to identify if people are mostly staying indoors during the period of the lockdown as well as maintaining social distancing,” he informed. AutoMicroUAS is currently in talks with a couple of state governments to provide solutions in this regard and is working on a prototype that will offer the endurance or running time of nearly two hours.

Drones can also be used for making a public broadcast. For instance, Augustine flew a drone that played the Hindi version of the popular song, We Shall Overcome, over a 36 sq. km area in Delhi’s Dwarka on the day of the nationwide Janta or People’s Curfew on March 22.

Government committed to supporting the use of drones

India had announced regulations to permit as well as appropriately safeguard the commercial application of various drone technologies in 2018. In January, the ministry of civil aviation (MoCA) released the draft note on Drone Policy 2.0, focusing on beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations, in the public domain for comments.

Amber Dubey, joint secretary, MoCA, at a drone event

Speaking to EastMojo, joint secretary, MoCA, Amber Dubey said, “Drones have huge applications especially in mass benefit areas like healthcare, disaster relief, agribusiness and law enforcement. The government is keen to provide all possible help to promote the drone industry.”

Dubey also looks after the drone division at the ministry.

Dr Soumya Sagar, a graduate from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi, and currently pursuing research in the US, told EastMojo, “Drones can be deployed to deliver personal protective equipment (PPE) kits, medicine and even specimens for medical testing to the nearest labs.”

Dr Soumya Sagar, Research scholar, US

Sagar feels that drones could also be utilised in decontamination to minimise the risk of contagion from spreading further. “Bigger and more powerful drones can be used to spray chemicals to sterilise the affected environment,” he said.

Augustine strongly seconds the idea. “We had designed a drone for the agriculture sector for spraying of insecticides and nutrients in fields. We have modified the same drone to decontaminate large areas,” he claimed.

“The biggest advantage that the drone offers is that you don’t have to physically visit an affected area, which keeps you out of the harm’s way. Although most people are not aware, disinfectants are in themselves a health hazard for workers. Such applications would particularly be useful in areas like the states of the Northeast where getting to several villages in emergencies takes hours due to uneven terrain,” he informed.

During a 2016 project in Sri Lanka’s tea estates, Augustine discovered that the average life expectancy of those involved in spraying insecticides on bushes was around 45 years. Consequently, several times workers scared for their health would pour the insecticides into the earth when no one was watching.

“From the point of view of the safety of the personnel, this is one area where drones would prove to be most effective,” he said.

With speculations running rife about the world’s biggest lockdown getting extended beyond April 14, there are enough compelling reasons to encourage the use of drones as part of the concerted effort being made by the government and other agencies to prevent COVID-19 from devolving into a full-blown health crisis in the world’s second most populous nation, experts said.

Advocate Narinder Pal Singh Lubana 

Relief worker, Narinder Pal Singh Lubana feels, “Drones can be used to monitor crowds. This will greatly help the police as well as facilitate social distancing in public places.”

An advocate by profession in the Punjab and Haryana High Court, Chandigarh, Lubana suggested that drones can additionally be used in providing an important safeguard to doctors and other people involved in relief work. “Food articles can be sent in a targeted manner to areas or homes where people are quarantined. Similarly, a doctor can provide consultation to patients through video conferencing and the necessary medicines can then be reached to them using drones” he said.

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