Civlian Drones: Are They Intruding Or Serving?

Multicopter with camera
Multicopter with camera

Neil Armstrong once said that ‘science has not yet mastered prophecy, we predict too much for the next year and yet far too little for the next ten’.

This quote is so true in the Indian context as none can imagine exactly ten years ago that drones can be used for civilian purposes but now they are all set to cover our ‘skies’. Currently, Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) has prohibited the use of drones for civilian purposes and formulating the policies for their implementation. Drones can be defined as those aircraft, either autonomous or remotely controlled, with no pilot aboard. They are also called as unmanned aircraft. They need certain components like data-link, control station, unmanned personnel etc, for their operation and hence, termed as unmanned aircraft system or unmanned aerial systems too.

The ‘Charming’ side:

The reason why civilian drones are ‘selling like hotcakes’ is due to their capability for enormous multifarious civilian applications like agricultural purposes, search & rescue, surveillance, traffic monitoring, motion pictures & journalism etc. Drones has the capacity to replace manned aircraft in many ways like they emit less CO2 & create less noise, can monitor dangerous sites without risking the life of human pilot, like it did in ‘Fukushima nuclear Catastrophe’ site in 2011, can deliver necessary aids in the remotest areas with less energy and time, comparatively to the manned aircraft. In agriculture, drones can be used to detect ‘crop diseases’ and to detect where crops need water and where it doesn’t, this could be a boon in arid/semi-arid regions.

Civilian drones are likely to have a huge economic impact as it has been predicted by Association of Unmanned Vehicle System International (AUVSI) that “70000 jobs will be created in the first three years of implementation of unmanned aircraft for civilian purposes in the United States only with an economic impact of $13.6 billion. This benefit will grow through 2025 when more than 100,000 jobs will be created with an economic impact of $82 billion. The global market for civilian unmanned aircraft stood at US$11.3bn in 2013 and has the potential to grow to over US$140bn in the next ten years.” It further stated that 80 percent of the commercial market for drones eventually will be for agricultural uses.

Hence, it is very much palpable that drones do not bring death only, but it brings life as well.

‘Hurdles’ & Challenges Ahead:

Being an intrusive technology, drones are likely to have some privacy implications. It gathers data either authorized by the state entity or private organization, in either case, privacy is going to intrude. It can record the activities of the people on the ground, for instance, Surveillance of riot affected area of ‘Trilokpuri’ in Delhi and ‘Kumbh Mela’ in UP. by drones etc, can raise a  basic question that how can a state regulate the ‘freedom’ of the citizens by aerial surveillance? And if it can, then to what extent?   And how can we prevent somebody from ‘prying’ in the public place by a drone?

Here what we should be solicitous about that how can the ‘privacy rights’ be protected as drones are coming with huge benefits and with greater risks too. And we better be ready to overcome these risks.

The law of privacy in India is quite enigmatic, though the Indian Judiciary tries to clarify the position ofttimes, like in, Gobind V. State of M.P., the Supreme Court widely interpret Article 21 of the Indian constitution and recognized ‘Right to Privacy’ as a fundamental right.  Though this right is not absolute and the state can invade the privacy if an emergency or public safety requires. Here the observation by the Bombay High court recently in ‘Beef Ban Case’ seems promising that ‘right to privacy is a part of personal liberty under article 21 and a citizen has a right to lead a meaningful life within his house & outside his house as well. Hence, The State cannot intrude the life of a citizen within the premises of his/ her home. This intrusion on the personal life of an individual is prohibited by the right to privacy which is a part of personal liberty guaranteed by Article 21.

But the attorney general argued, interestingly, in Justice K.S. Puttswamy (Retd.) V. Union of India (‘Adhar case’) that ‘Privacy is not a fundamental right as it never was because the supreme court in its eight- judge bench judgment of ‘Satish Chandra V. MP Sharma’ held that privacy is not a fundamental right. And only the smaller bench decided later on that privacy to be a fundamental right’.

Hence, the plausible solution to this perplex situation is to have a separate legislation on privacy covering drone surveillance.

Here, the ‘reasonableness’ of drones surveillance should be determined but the expectation of the citizens relating to privacy must be ‘reasonable’ too.  And in the same corollary, an American case namely; California v. Ciraolo, is noteworthy, where the Court held ‘the warrantless aerial surveillance of a backyard within the home was a reasonable search because even though the homeowner had a privacy fence, the ‘marijuana’ in his backyard was clearly visible’.

And to ensure the same, the DGCA must come up with a stringent certification & licensing policy for civilian drones and maintains a harmony between the right to privacy and aerial surveillance by the drones. No technology should be condemned for not bringing the solution with it. Drones have immense potential for civilian applications but proactive steps should be taken for their usage. And in implementing drones for civilian purposes, protecting privacy is a ‘key’. As Edward Snowden has very aptly remarked that “If you don’t care about privacy because you have nothing to hide, it’s like saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say”.

Owais Farooqui is Guest Teacher, Faculty of Law, Jamia Millia Islamia ( a central University), New Delhi.
PhD Scholar, Center of Air & Space Law, NALSAR University, Hyderabad.

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