Drones and the Coronavirus: Do these applications make any sense?

Want to use drones in response to COVID-19? Then read this previous post to inform your decision-making. I also published this follow-up post to suggest that drones may add more value later in adjacent crises. I wrote these posts to encourage more critical thinking around the use of drones in response to the pandemic. I don’t have all the answers, of course, but we do have questions on some of the applications that several drone companies and other organizations are promoting. The figure below from Drone Industry Insights (DRONEII) does a great job collating what we’ve come across in recent weeks.

The applications proposed under “Delivering Essential Goods and Services” on the right-hand side are already mature applications that existed years before the pandemic. The applications under “Battling the Spread of the Virus” are somewhat more novel. We thus welcome input on those specific applications. We’d be especially grateful for any additional evidence there may be to evaluate the effectiveness of these applications better.

Spraying

It appears there is little to no evidence that outdoor spraying of disinfectants or other substances (by hand or by drone) has any impact on reducing the transmission of the novel coronavirus. On the contrary, this fumigation could create public health problems and add to environmental pollution. As The Lancet Journal on Infectious Diseases clearly noted on March 5, 2020, “air disinfection of cities and communities is not known to be effective for disease control and needs to be stopped. The widespread practice of spraying disinfectant and alcohol in the sky, on roads, vehicles, and personnel has no value; moreover, large quantities of alcohol and disinfectant are potentially harmful to humans and should be avoided.” While some have suggested that outdoor spraying may help reassure local communities that the government is in control and responding, could this potentially create a false sense of safety and thus dis-incentivize physical distancing? On the other hand, the emotional reassurance and peace of mind that the spraying gives can provide crucial psychological relief, which is key to resilience. Others have suggested that the spray can keep rodents away. But thus far, only one preliminary study has been carried out, which suggests that cats and ferrets are more susceptible to being infected by COVID-19 than dogs, pigs, chickens, and ducks. We have not found any scientific studies thus far that assess the transmission of the novel coronavirus from ferrets or cats to human beings. Indoor spraying is a different question. It remains to be seen whether aerial or ground robots can be more effective at indoor spraying compared to more conventional means. Does the use of drones in this case save time? Does it save on costs? Is the technology readily available?

Temperature scanning

It is unclear how valid, reliable, or cost-effective the current technology is for very high-resolution remote scanning at a distance. For example, can relatively affordable sensors distinguish between a body temperature of 37.2C and 38.0C from 50 meters away, let alone 100 meters? The same may also be true for those proposals that aim to use drones for automated remote cough detection. In any event, not everyone displays these symptoms right away. And even if the technology does work superbly well, then what? For example, someone with a high fever and cough walks down an alleyway and is automatically spotted by a drone that detects fever and a cough. Now what? It’s rather easy to get away from a drone in an urban environment.

Audio broadcasting

We hear mixed results in the use of loudspeakers on drones to encourage physical distancing and staying home. In some of the video footage we’ve seen, it appears that those who hear these warnings from the sky don’t actually change their behaviors. Others take videos of the drones with their smartphones but otherwise go on as before. That being said, we hear from our colleagues at India Flying Labs that this application of drones has been relatively effective in certain parts of India, and that many police chiefs are actively asking for drones with loudspeakers to carry out their public awareness efforts. The messaging itself needs to be carefully crafted to maximize the potential for behavior change. Just repeating the same messages over and over, “stay home, keep your distance,” may not be very useful since many have already heard these same messages from other sources. First, the messaging should be used to offer an information service, i.e., to provide “news you can use” to local communities; to be an authoritative source of information. Second, the messaging itself must be crafted in such a way that it resonates at a hyper-local level, draw on specific local customs and local traditions, and/or have local celebrities do the messaging. Either way, crafting different messages for different age-groups and/or separate messages for men and women are good practice. Over in Tunisia, it is unclear whether this ground robot (equipped with a camera, thermal sensor, loudspeaker, and microphone) is very effective. Why not merely use a police car with similar sensors?

Cargo delivery

Using cargo drones to deliver essential medicines and to collect patient samples for COVID-19 testing is being widely promoted. Anyone who has been involved in setting up cargo drones operations knows that doing so can take a significant amount of time. Also, the local availability of reliable and affordable cargo drones, let alone trained cargo drone pilots, is likely to be limited. So the rapid deployment of new cargo drone projects in response to the pandemic is expected to face several significant constraints. That being said, for cargo drone projects that are currently (or recently) operational, these can be more easily ramped up or repurposed to support the pandemic response. Foreign drone companies with significant resources and experience may be able to set up new cargo drone services in new countries. Even then, however, if the relevant medicines to help treat COVID symptoms are not available, or if insufficient tests are available to test for the virus, then there’s no point flying any drones. That being said, there are of course other needs for medical deliveries. We hear from Panama Flying Labs that the lock-down there restricts movement based on the ID number on your national ID card. Everyone is assigned a specific window of time when they can leave their homes for essential reasons based on their ID numbers. This poses a major challenge to those suffering from chronic illnesses who need their medications refilled on a regular basis. So Panama Flying Labs has been asked to look into possible cargo drone solutions to address this problem. It remains to be seen whether doing so will be logistically feasible and whether using cargo drones will add value compared to traditional delivery methods.

Surveillance

Drones can enhance situational awareness. This explains why many have advocated for the use of drones to help enforce lock-downs, sanitary cordons, curfews, and border crossings. While this may be a relatively more effective use of drone technology in response to the pandemic, it does raise serious concerns about data privacy and data protection. These concerns are rarely addressed by those advocating for drone-based surveillance. At the same time, there are increasing concerns that many governments are taking advantage of the pandemic to impose harsher surveillance measures that may persist well beyond the end of the pandemic. We’ve also seen multiple photos of drone experts huddled together with police and other government officials to show them the live feed from their drones overhead. This does not qualify as physical distancing.


To be clear, we are not public health experts ourselves (although several leaders of Flying Labs are medical doctors). The evidence that exists on the value-added of some of the above applications is particularly thin, which means that further evidence may well make these applications far more compelling. It should also be noted that when governments and local authorities instruct local drone experts to spray disinfectants to contain COVID-19, for example, these local experts may have no choice. This may also be true for some of the other applications listed above. That being said, at the very least, it is our collective responsibility to inform these authorities about the expected added value of some of these applications.

What is important is that we keep learning at a rapid pace and take in all new forms of evidence to review the uses of drones in response to the pandemic. This doesn’t mean that drones cannot play a decisive role in supporting the response to COVID-19; it simply means that more critical thinking is necessary before launching yet another drone project to tackle the pandemic. While drones may not add as much value as we’d like in the current phase of the global health emergency, this may change soon. Either way, we’ll be sure to continue working with and learning from Flying Labs to document what works and what doesn’t work to the best of our abilities. In the meantime, we’re fans of what Nepal Flying Labs is doing in response to the pandemic. Given the drastic reduction in air traffic around the capital city, the municipalities in Kathmandu Valley finally have a chance to secure flight permissions from the Nepal Civil Aviation Authority, so that Nepal Flying Labs and partners can use their drones to create high-resolution maps of the vast area (pictured above). These very detailed maps have long been needed to inform urban planning projects led by the municipalities.

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