Chilly powder-sprinkling drones in Aurangabad a first from India’s maiden drone police squad

Pankaj Mishra November 21, 2017 7 min

AURANGABAD — A team of four police constables-turned-drone operators, led by inspector Hemant Todkar, in Aurangabad’s cyber crime department will form India’s first anti-crime dedicated drone squad when it formally launches in few weeks in this Maharashtra city.

Aurangabad police isn’t the first to use drones in policing globally or in India but a unique Indian use case developed by the squad – the proposed sprinkling of concentrated chilli powder through drones to control unruly mobs – is a first. It is perhaps patent-worthy, too, says Yashasvi Yadav, an IIT graduate who is the police commissioner of Aurangabad.

The drone squad will have four drones and will carry up to 2 kg of chilli concentrate. These drones will fly back to the command centre before their batteries drain out or there’s any other emergency, all controlled using software.

”Our officers will fly drones like pros playing video games. We have a back-to-home feature too, whereby drones will come back to the starting point if they run out of battery or there’s an emergency or they run out of chilli powder.” Yadav did not mention the name of the drones manufacturer but it is likely to be of Chinese make and will cost around Rs 15 lakh for four of them.

India’s ‘drone cop’ Yashasvi Yadav, now Aurangabad police commissioner, experimented with drones in an earlier stint in Lucknow

Yadav, who is betting on drones as the latest crime-fighting tool, says there are three immediate applications to be carried out when the drone squad formally launches in few weeks: monitoring and managing unruly mobs by spraying chilli powder, reaching the crime scene and relaying live imagery for identifying criminals, and traffic management.

“The biggest problem we are trying to solve is disbursal of unlawful assembly (of people). The problem in India is that for every small or big issues, there are agitations and marches and many of them turn violent. They make allegations against police, there are riots, damages done to public property and so on,” Yadav says.

The drones will be a deterrent, the commissioner says. “With drones watching and tracking, the mobsters will think twice before creating trouble.”

The video evidence, further, will be as good as it gets in a court of law, Yadav adds. “In a way, it will be unimpeachable evidence. Right now, we are relying on witnesses who sometimes turn hostile because of threats or even insensitivity.”

There are plans to add a dye solution to the drone payload, too, to identify the rioters. “We are going to be putting dye in chilli powder so that whoever is part of an unlawful assembly gets marked. Later, after arrest, that person cannot claim he was not part of the assembly,” Yadav says.

As reported by Times of India’s Aurangabad crime reporter Mohammed Akhef earlier this year, the drone experiments started in May itself.

An Aurangabad Police drone in action during the Ganesh chathurthi festival this year

Police teams in the US have been using drones for rescue and search operations, traffic management, crime scene analysis, crowd monitoring and so on, according to Dronefly. The instances of drones helping nab criminals in the US has prompted tech-savvy officers such as Yadav to explore newer applications in India.

In India, there have been efforts to track illegal fishing in national reserves and to catch sand mining smugglers.

“Policing in india has become a very herculean, difficult and complex task because of burgeoning population, multiple faiths and their festivals. Whenever we used to discuss these issues with our officers and experts, it was mostly about better infrastructure and the police to public ratio, which effectively means increasing the number of policemen,” says Yadav.

“Now india’s population is so huge that if you go by the western standards, we might have to increase the force by at least ten times from where we are today, which is impossible given the costs involved.”

“There’s also a human factor, which results in mistakes and other complexities; drones negate those issues.”

Aurangabad’s anti-crime drone squad is taking wings after India announced a draft policy framework for use of drones in the country that will encourage the commercial use of drones in areas as diverse as construction to agriculture, industrial monitoring to photography, disaster management to physical deliveries — potentially giving rise to a new industry that could generate millions of dollars in revenues and thousands of jobs.

The chilly drones

Commissioner Yadav’s love for drones goes back to the year 2015 when he was the superintendent of police in Lucknow, the state capital of Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state. Back then, he used drones as part of a pilot to monitor crowds in festivals such as Muharram. But, the experiment only used mild pepper spray.

Facial recognition and automatic number plate capturing technologies were also deployed in Lucknow along with CCTV cameras resulting in a reduction of prevailing crime rates by over 60%, Yadav claims. “I’ve always thought that technology could be a good force multiplier.”

In August this year, Yadav and his team in Aurangabad piloted drones for monitoring and managing festive crowd during the “Ganesh Chaturthi” festival, during which idols of the Hindu God Ganesha are immersed in water bodies by crowds of devotees.

The chilli powder to be used in the drones is being developed at a chemical lab in Aurangabad.

“We concentrate chilli powder in a chemical lab, where effectiveness of the powder is increased by 3 to 4 times. The drones are going to be fitted with a pump which will spray chilli concentrate on unruly mob. It’s non lethal and no permanent damage is caused,” he says. “We have finished live experiments with drones, included on our own cops.”

During the pilot in August this year in Aurangabad, Todkar and his team used only two drones, primarily for monitoring crowd activity from 10 am to midnight on the day of idol immersion.

Inspector Hemant Todkar, who heads the Aurangabad Police drone squad

“There were no incidents and the drones were helpful in monitoring localised activities,” says Todkar, a mathematics graduate who’s been working in Aurangabad’s cyber crime department for one and half years.

For all the promised benefits in fighting crime using drones by police teams, sceptics are worried about the potential misuse and invasion of privacy by the handlers.

“Even with chilli powder concentrate, these are kind of weaponised drones. Who is going to be accountable, who will ensure their rightful use?” asks a former superintendent of police from Karnataka who had evaluated use of drones couple of years ago. He requested anonymity because he didn’t want to upset his former colleagues.

“Like with many surveillance tools, even drones can be used for visual snooping, perhaps much more effectively and mischievously than anything else,” he added.

Commissioner Yadav tries his hand at piloting a drone

For his part, Yadav sees drones as replacing conventional ways of managing unruly mobs in a “non-lethal” way.

“The only alternative for drones right now, is “lathi charge” because tear gas shells are totally ineffective. In fact, the rioters pick up the shells and throw them back at the cops. Also, for “lathi charge” to be effective, police should outnumber the mob, which is generally not the case and the cops get beaten when the crowd is bigger. Another option is to use rubber bullets, but it can be lethal. Third is using real bullets. Drones are a non-lethal replacement for all of them,” argues Yadav.

Aurangabad Police has a workforce of some 4,000 to police a city population of some 1.5 million.

Finally, drones can go where no cops can, at least at the speed at which they can respond. When someone calls the police helpline number, depending on the severity of a crime, the drone squad can be activated.

“A drone can reach fastest to a scene of crime. If there’s a robbery or dacoity complaint, drones can reach the crime scene, lock the target and follow them wherever they go, or escape. It will be on automated locking mode. We will know the exact location, vehicle details, unless there’s a big obstruction in the line of sight,” says Yadav.