Drone Based Aerial Mapping of India: Need, Drawbacks and Issues

Published: January 3, 2020

The Survey of India is all set to use drone imaging to create ultra-high resolution spatial and topographic map of India. This is the biggest endeavor in mapping the country since the Great Trigonometric Survey undertaken back in the 1800s, which is responsible for the high-precision maps of India still in use.

Project Highlights

The project plans to create ultra-high-resolution maps covering 75% of the country’s area, accurate up to 10 cm. To put matters into perspective, a high-quality service such as Google Maps is only accurate up to a few meters. The maps will have a resolution of 1:500 i.e. 500cm on the ground will be represented as 1cm on paper. Again, to put matters into perspective, all current maps of the highest available resolution is only at 1:25000. The project is being taken up by the oldest scientific department in India, the Survey of India (SoI). SoI is affiliated with the Department of Science and Technology. The project has already taken off in districts spread across the states of Haryana, Maharashtra, and Karnataka.

Why is this project a need of the hour?

The world has moved to digital maps long back. India is lagging behind. For the longest time, a land survey has been done manually, with surveyors measuring lands and creating records. This is the first-time high-resolution imaging and sensor technology will be used. There are quite a few advantages to having 3-D maps –

  • Digital records are easier to analyze and search through.
  • Maps such as these can easily store all required data such as land topography, socio-economic data, road network, etc.
  • Government officials can easily access and analyze this data to make better policy and administrative decisions.
  • Digital data is always less cumbersome to handle and accessible around the world.
  • The availability of a national digital map decreases our dependence on 3rd party maps to a great extent.
  • A major consequence of drone-based exercise will be the mapping of settled habitations in villages i.e. accurate information to ensure that residents can finally get property cards as well as proper legal titles to their lands.

What are the drawbacks of this project?

There are mainly two aspects to which drone mapping and availability of digital maps may prove to be a challenge. They are –

1. Aerial Security

India does not have a well designed, permanent security protocol in place when it comes to drones. Currently, drones are covered under Drone Regulation 1.0, a set of temporary guidelines by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA). Even under the current set of guidelines, drones are treated as smaller aircraft. However, drones are in fact equipped with massive data mining equipment such as high-resolution cameras, GPS sensors, movement sensors, audio sensors, etc. These are not taken into considerations. There are concerns regarding drones flying over restricted airspaces, as well as gathering information on private citizens. With the Sai Krishna Committee report yet to be implemented, these concerns are yet to be addressed. India currently imports its drones from abroad, especially China. With recent controversy around the Chinese tec giant Huwaei about spy software, India cannot take a chance on its internal security by using foreign-made drones.

2. Data Protection

The data thus captured via this exercise will be massive and extremely detailed. For digital maps to be effective that data will need to be stored on the cloud, which comes with its own security concerns. Sensitive data cannot be stored on foreign shores and India needs to bring up its own network of servers and maintain it securely to ensure this data does not fall into the wrong hands.

Way Forward

  • Although India may have missed the first bus to securing the exercise by implementing privacy by design, there is still a lot it can do.
  • To begin with, we need strict, detailed and effective legislation in place to ensure security for aerial surveys, as well as for data protection. This will, of course, need coherence between different departments within the government.
  • Limitations need to be placed on the kind of sensors drones flying over Indian soil are permitted to use. This, of course, should be an integral part of a permanent Drone Regulation Act.
  • The recent Act on Data Protection has already pressed limitations on the kind of sensitive data that can only be stored within the geographical boundaries of the country. This needs to be implemented effectively.

In other words, we need to find a way that maximizes the advantages of technological innovation by minimizing its adverse effects. For this, a serious public discourse, along with intervention from experts and lawmakers is the need of the hour. What is certain is that India should not be left behind the rest of the world.

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