As part of the effort to combat the spread of COVID-19 in the United States, UAV company Draganfly has partnered with Australia’s Department of Defense (DOD), the University of South Australia (UniSA) and Vital Intelligence, a company that collects and analyzes healthcare data, to remotely detect and monitor people with infectious and respiratory conditions.
Draganfly’s UAVs will be fitted with a specialized sensor and computer vision system that can monitor people’s temperature, heart rate, and respiratory rate, as well as detect people sneezing and coughing in crowds. The collaboration, called The Vital Intelligence Project, utilizes technology developed with help from the DOD’s Science and Technology Group. Draganfly was selected as the exclusive integration partner on March 25, with an initial budget of up to $1.5 million to commercialize and deploy the technology.
The UAV uses u-blox LEA-M8S GNSS modules integrated into the company’s own interface printed circuit boards.
In late January, recalled Draganfly’s CEO Cameron Chell, the company began to consider what kinds of health data it could collect and analyze that could help public officials and private-sector managers flatten the pandemic’s curve. It then contacted Javaan Chahl, a UniSA researcher who had been a customer for 20 years, to discuss the use of UAVs for this mission.
The technology was originally designed to be deployed on helicopters in disaster relief operations, to measure the vital signs of survivors. It was then adapted to measure the health of wildlife populations, such as herds migrating or threatened by drought or fire, and in hospital neonatal wards to monitor the vital signs of newborns.
To provide core temperature readings as well as measurements of heart rate and respiratory rate, the technology uses RGB and thermal cameras, both fixed and mounted on UAVs. “The public sector and the private sector are both interested in this technology, but are approaching it very differently,” Chell said.
The system’s capabilities include detecting people who are coughing, not wearing masks, or clustering in violation of social-distancing rules. The objective is to provide population health information to public agencies to help them make better decisions by measuring the effectiveness of their COVID-19 policies in real time, rather than react to past information. The system, Chell stressed, does not record data on individuals but reports such figures as “84% of the people are socially distancing 24% of the time.”
“Based on what I see unfolding with the measurement and data industry as it relates to health technology,” Chell said, “six or eight months from now you are likely to see health measurement reports the same way that you see weather reports. Eventually, it will be broadcast to the consumer. That is our objective.” People, he predicts, will use these reports to make decisions about where and when to travel.
To obtain accurate core temperatures, Draganfly’s thermal sensor needs to be about 20 feet away from its subject, and uses software to zoom in on the tear ducts. To obtain heart and respiratory rates requires about 25 seconds of footage with at least a 4K camera, magnification to detect body micromovements, and machine vision to detect skin tone biometric measurements. The system also picks up movements — such as of the shoulders, lumbar area and upper torso — that indicate coughing, Chell points out. “The results certainly have been promising in terms of having real quantitative data,” he said.
The scenario is somewhat different in the private sector, which typically relies more on fixed-based cameras for entranceways — for example, to monitor workers entering a warehouse, a factory or a shipyard to guard against people who are infectious or have a respiratory disease. “We have seen several announcements by companies that they are using thermal cameras to do this,” Chell said. People pass through the company’s fixed system, which uses both thermal and RGB cameras, in less than three seconds, according to Chell, which is good for such facilities as parks, office buildings and convention centers. Private organizations can then ask people who exhibit certain symptoms to consent to a secondary screening in exchange for access.
Additionally, Draganfly will provide UAV services for disinfecting outdoor facilities.