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How a group of drone operators in Kerala rose to the occasion during floods

Sky Limit, a Whatsapp group of drone operators, were in action in north Kerala, which has been hit by floods and landslips

Last week, Prasanth T, a drone operator from Kalpetta in Wayanad, was out shooting the picturesque hilly terrain of Chooralmala, a holiday spot in the district, for an advertisement. Little did he know that four days later he would be taking the same route to cover a disaster at nearby Puthumala, where landslips had washed away an entire village. “I was contacted by a Malayalam news channel to take the visuals. We covered several kilometres on foot to reach the spot. It was heartbreaking; an entire area was wiped off and people were frantically searching for their family members. Nobody knew how many people were there at that time,” says Prasanth.

Prasanth T

Prasanth T  
| Photo Credit:
Special arrangement

The 27-year-old is a member of a Whatsapp group, Sky Limit Drone Operators Club, which has over 250 drone operators from across Kerala. Over the last few days, many of them have assisted surveillance and rescue operations and provided visuals for government and private organisations, especially in the northern districts of Kozhikode, Malappuram, Wayanad and Kannur, ravaged by flash floods and landslips.

The group was started by Sooraj VS, a drone operator from Kottayam, who put his drone to use during the floods of 2018, especially in Chengannur and nearby areas.

“I did it alone last year. I wanted to do my bit towards relief operations and we had dropped food and medicines. When the calamity stuck this year in north Kerala, I knew the places would be cut off. That’s why I reached out to drone operators across the state and thus the group was formed,” he says.

They got in touch with Kerala State Disaster Management Authority to express their willingness to volunteer.

“Thus our phone number was widely circulated on social media and celebrities such as Tovino Thomas shared it as well. Over 60 drone operators based in different parts of north Kerala attended the calls, mainly for search operations. I even got a call asking whether we could use the drone to drop a piece of rope across an inundated area. We didn’t get calls for dropping food because most people were already living in camps,” says Sooraj.

Sooraj VS, who started the Whatsapp group, Sky Limit Drone Operators Club

Sooraj VS, who started the Whatsapp group, Sky Limit Drone Operators Club
 
| Photo Credit:
Special arrangement

Drones have emerged as a key tool in disaster management. It can fly as low as 30 metres above the ground and help in monitoring an area, so as to assess the seriousness of the situation and locate people who might be stranded. State and local self-government institutions now depend on visuals taken by drones to ascertain the damage to the topography.

Recalling the operations last year, Sooraj explains that the DJI Inspire 2 drone, usually used in film shooting, was used to air-drop materials.

“It can carry a load of 2 to 2.5 kilograms. We removed the camera, which itself weighs 2 kg, for this mission. It was not possible to use helicopters in these areas,” he says. The materials were hung from a pipe that was tied to the drone.

Braving the odds

“Water currents were strong and so we travelled in boats from which the drones were sent to the buildings where people were waiting for food, medicines, power banks and other supplies,”recalls Sooraj.

Most of the members in the group are photographers who use the drones in wedding shoots and advertisements. “The small drones used for wedding shoots were put to use in the affected areas,” says Simon Wideangle from Mananthavady in Wayanad.

Aerial click of Chengannur during the floods of 2018

Aerial click of Chengannur during the floods of 2018  
| Photo Credit:
Sooraj VS

“Although I got calls from the media, I couldn’t travel to many places because roads were blocked. Mananthavady itself was marooned and it was not possible for the drone to fly high because of the mist,” says Simon.

In the case of Vishnu K Subramanian, calls for help came a few kilometres away from his home at Peruvanna in Kozhikode district.

Search and rescue

“Water level was so high in these areas that it was not possible to go there on foot to find out if families were stranded there. Only country boats could take that route and it took some time for those to arrive from Beypore. The drones were pressed in for search and surveillance till the boats reached our area and then the boatsmen took over the search and rescue operations,” says Vishnu.

Both Sooraj and Vishnu are active in the film industry. While Vishnu has worked in a couple of Tamil films, including Rajiv Menon’s Sarvam Thala Mayam, Sooraj has over 46 films to his credit, including blockbusters such as Lucifer and Madhura Raja. “It feels great when we watch what we have shot on the big screen. Films are a means to make money, whereas what we are doing now is our social commitment,” Sooraj says.

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