The New York Times dubbed it “Party Zero”: Some 50 people gathered on March 5 for a birthday party in the affluent suburb of Westport, Connecticut. The well-heeled guests “shared reminiscences, a lavish buffet and, unknown to anyone, the coronavirus,” the Times reported. Then they scattered to destinations in Westport and far beyond—taking the virus with them, in what some experts refer to as a “super-spreading event.”
That was the beginning of a major outbreak in Westport, which had no known coronavirus cases on the day of the party. The county where Westport is located soon became Connecticut’s virus hotspot.
In late April, the Westport Police Department announced that it would be partnering with Saskatchewan-based drone maker Draganfly on a “Flatten the Curve Pilot Program” that would use drones to detect COVID-19 symptoms and monitor social distancing.
That didn’t go over well with Westport residents. Even though the police said they would not be using facial recognition or surveilling private yards, residents were outraged by what they saw as an invasion of privacy and soon forced the police to drop the pilot plan.
Draganfly remains undaunted, though. The company, which has a long history in the drone business, is now partnering with the Australian Defense Department and the University of South Australia to develop a pandemic drone that can survey community groups and help identify people infected with COVID-19.
But how well could a pandemic drone actually work? For now, coronavirus symptom-detection technology may be better suited for fixed sensors at businesses—an approach that Draganfly is also pursuing—than for quadcopters flying above public spaces.
An early-warning system. Draganfly’s Australian partners had previously developed a suite of artificial intelligence tools, called the Vital Intelligence Project, to measure health indicators. The technology, which was originally intended for disaster rescue and relief missions, has also been used for monitoring the health of wildlife herds and babies in prenatal wards. Draganfly has licensed the technology to use it for pandemic monitoring.
Draganfly CEO Cameron Chell says his company’s health-monitoring drone—a modified Draganflyer Commander quadcopter equipped with the Australian software—can detect whether people in parks, beaches, and other public spaces are maintaining social distance and wearing masks. The drone can also look for health indicators such as fever and coughing.
Public officials could use the drone for enforcement purposes, such as deciding when to clear an overly crowded area, as well as for making health assessments about the spread of the coronavirus within communities. The drone will cost between $2,500 and $15,000, depending on how it’s equipped, Chell estimates.
The system works by detecting individual humans within the landscape, and analyzing their posture and the distance between them. For example, an arm raised to the face may indicate that someone is coughing.
Safer sets for Hollywood. Deployed on a drone, the Draganfly system has some major limitations. Although it can make measurements from up to 400 yards away with very expensive cameras, a viewing angle of less than 45 degrees and a distance of less than 20 feet is optimal for measuring health indicators such as breathing rate and heart rate, which can be determined using super-magnifying cameras that detect tiny movements in the neck and cheeks. At close range, thermal imaging can even measure core body temperature, by focusing on tear ducts in the eyes where blood circulates close to the surface.
Although Draganfly has previously been a drone manufacturer, Chell says the company’s greatest growth now lies in building ground-based health monitoring systems for businesses such as convention centers, theme parks, and airports. In partnership with the film and television production company Enderby Entertainment, Draganfly has already introduced a ground-based system called Safe Set Solutions that will be used to screen film crews, actors, and others working on Hollywood movies by checking for elevated body temperature and physical distancing. Enderby has purchased the technology for two film productions scheduled to begin this summer and will also be distributing the technology to other production companies.
Draganfly hasn’t given up on drone monitoring, though. Chell says the company “heard very valid privacy concerns” in Westport and did not do a good job of explaining how the system works but plans to do better in pilot programs planned for other communities.
Suspicions about China. Authorities have already used drones to enforce social distancing rules in China and parts of Europe. In the United States, though, there is a rising backlash against Chinese technology—including small commercial drones that are mostly manufactured in China. The pandemic has only made that backlash stronger.
Even before the pandemic began, the US Interior Department grounded its 800-plus fleet of drones because of fears that the drones might be sharing sensitive data with the Chinese government. In mid-May, 14 Republican Congressional representatives wrote to the US Justice Department to request information about US state and local law enforcement entities that have received drone donations from the Chinese company DJI to assist with social distancing enforcement. Co-signer Congresswoman Debbie Lesko (R-AZ) tweeted that China “cannot be trusted.”
A bill introduced in late May by Senator Martha McSally (R-AZ) would prohibit state and local public safety organizations from receiving federal funding unless they certify that they’re not using any drones manufactured in China or by an entity owned or controlled by the Chinese government. McSally claimed drone donations are “just another part of China’s ongoing effort to exploit the global pandemic.”
Chell is quick to point out that Draganfly is based in North America and has been a longtime contractor to the Pentagon. “We check the boxes in terms of security concerns,” he says.
But does it work? Most of the concerns about using drones for pandemic monitoring have focused on national security and privacy. But what about the efficacy of remote monitoring?
Fever and coughing are not the only symptoms of COVID-19. Research has identified other symptoms that aren’t so easily detectable: for example, muscle pain, sore throat, and loss of taste and smell. The latest research also suggests that many people who test positive for coronavirus are either pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic but nevertheless capable of transmitting the disease.
Temperature checks have become commonplace at many businesses, but Chell claims the Draganfly technology is superior because it can detect someone who is taking Advil to eliminate fever but still has an elevated heart rate. To protect privacy, coronavirus-monitoring systems do not retain individualized data, he says, and are intended only to protect a company’s workers and customers. In public places, the technology is designed to get an overall picture of the population’s health, rather than to identify specific individuals who may be infected.
“We’re at the genesis of this health-management era,” Chell says. He predicts that looking up the real-time health report for a park or mall before you go there may soon be as commonplace as checking the weather forecast.