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COVID-19; Deploying Drones To Combat A Crisis

Last updated on

April 20, 2020


    What you’ll find out by reading this Coptrz article on Using UAVs to counter COVID-19;

    • Examples of how drones are being used
    • Benefits of using drones
    • Safety protocols during deployment
    • How to embrace uses
    • Future drone uses

    Drones in a Crisis: Using UAVs to counter COVID-19

    There are a multitude of great ways that drones can be used on a day-to-day basis, be it just for fun or to make business operations more efficient, or possibly even take on tasks never before possible. However, when it comes to spreading that ‘drones are good’ message to the wider public it often takes some rather more extreme events to really showcase just how UAV technology can truly make a positive, and indeed life-saving, impact on our lives.

    Although the coronavirus outbreak is certainly the most pertinent example right now, it’s by no means the only emergency scenario where drones have come to the fore. We’ve previously covered events such as the Notre Dame fire and we could point to hundreds, if not thousands, of situations, such as fires, floods, police searches and more where drones have been deployed to provide critical aid in a time of need – not only to help those in trouble, but also to enable the first responders and emergency teams to operate without putting themselves in harm’s way.

    With the COVID-19 outbreak, being able to access areas while minimising human contact has obviously been key, and so the deployment of UAVs across the globe has been a crucial tool for many government agencies – whether that’s to deliver life-saving supplies or just to broadcast important safety messages to the wider public.


    How Drones are Being Used

    Drones are being deployed in a variety of ways to help tackle to virus. Some of them are your more traditional aerial photography or filming to help monitor and document the movement of people in any given area (by the media as well as various government agencies), while others are more specific to this somewhat extreme and widespread situation.

    Given the origins of the pandemic and it’s standing in the drone industry, it hasn’t been a surprise to see China leading the way with the use of UAV tech, but many other countries have been quick to adopt aerial solutions. Here are just a few examples:

    Medical Deliveries: Getting key medical supplies into the right hands has been crucial, along with food, water and other items. Using the likes of the DJI M600, countries like China, Italy and Mexico have been dropping much-needed supplies to individuals as well as transporting goods from warehouses to nearby hospitals and medical centres. Drones can be especially useful for reaching isolated regions or hard-to-reach locations that might be highly infectious.

    Public Broadcasts and Dispersing Crowds: With the likes of the DJI Mavic 2 Enterprise being compatible with a loudspeaker system, authorities in places such as Spain, Malaysia and France have been taking to the sky to help broadcast key safety information without the need to send police officers into potentially infectious areas. Likewise, some agencies have also been using such a system to warn civilians that might be breaking any lockdown or other safety instructions to return home – in Italy a supermarket was even using a drone to ensure its queueing customers respected its distancing rules!

    Spraying Disinfectant: With DJI’s Agras T16 and MG-1P models already geared for the targeted spraying of agricultural crops, it hasn’t been a great leap to see the same craft being used to disinfect areas in places such as China. Although there is no definitive evidence of its success rate at this point, it’s a good example of how existing UAV technology can be adapted to suit an otherwise unprecedented situation.

    Health Checks: One of the more unusual uses of drones has been to equip the likes of the Mavic 2 or M200 with a thermal camera, which can then be used to read the body temperature of people in order to look for possible signs of fever – a key symptom of the virus. It’s obviously a far cry from a more scientific medical diagnosis, but it can act as a useful early indicator of people that might be at risk and not know it. Some companies have even been pushing machine learning to try and teach their systems to identify people coughing or sneezing.


    Expert Opinion

    To find out more on how drones are being used to help tackle the coronavirus, as well as many more emergency response situations we spoke with DJI’s Associate Director of Marketing Communications, David Benowitz, and Raynor Cao, an Enterprise Solution Engineer for the company…


    What are the fundamental benefits that drones can bring to situation such as this coronavirus outbreak?

    David: Fundamentally, drones are flying robotic tools that remove contact spread from the equation of regular operations, for public safety officials and even medical professionals. Currently officers and other staff on the frontlines of the global battle against COVID-19 are both putting their health at risk and potentially acting as a new vector for further spread of the virus. Just as an example, the NYPD recently announced they had over 1,400 officers that tested positive for the virus.

    What are some of the primary examples of how drones are being deployed?

    David: The list is constantly changing, with both new applications being discovered and more information about the effectiveness of current uses being learned. I like to split these applications into two groups: one for proven applications that have been commonly used by public safety agencies before the pandemic, and the other for experimental applications that have been deployed as a reaction to the virus.

    For the proven applications, it includes broadcasting to the public via a speakerphone, remote oversight, community patrol, mapping for planning management of test sites and delivery by drone.

    For the experimental applications, this most notably includes spraying disinfectant and measuring body temperatures. Recent comments have cast some doubt on the effectiveness of spraying disinfectant, however there are no official results to date. Measuring body temperatures with a drone can be accurate to an extent, if the proper guidelines are followed, although it should not be used to replace a thorough medical examination.


    Any more unusual uses, or perhaps examples that are more specific to a certain situation?

    David: There are a few that stand out, most notably the body temperature measurement use case, which uses a cotton swab and an update to DJI Pilot to keep the camera properly calibrated. Another is an agency that is delivering prescription medicine to infectious COVID-19 patients by attaching a Big Gulp cup to a Mavic 2 Enterprise.

    Overall, I’ve been incredibly impressed with both DJI’s internal staff and drone users across the globe in how quickly they have moved to test out unique ways to deploy drones to combat the coronavirus.


    Although the drones themselves obviously aren’t infectious, they can still carry traces of the virus from human contact so presumably there would be protocols in place to maintain safety at all stages of deployment?

    David: That’s correct. Luckily Hazardous Materials Response teams have been deploying drones for some years now, so there are some learnings that can be gleaned from these missions. Teams need to establish ‘Cold’ and ‘Warm’ zones during their operations, which can complicate simple things like replacing a battery. Additionally, after a mission teams need to decontaminate the drone alongside any other equipment in the Warm zone before it can leave.

     Raynor: With most drones, the workflow is usually contactless for people except for deliveries, so the risk is actually reduced. For deliveries via UAV, the risk of infection is similar to that of an express delivery and the main disinfection for users and recipients is typically enough.


    How much can a company like DJI do to embrace the potential use cases in emergency situations, and how much comes from your users adapting to the situation in order to fulfil their own needs?

    David: We’re fortunate to have a large and innovative customer base, with so many of the new, innovative applications coming from them. Our focus has been on helping out where we can through support programmes, software and technical support, and are working to help spread more information about the different applications and procedures agencies can follow to optimise the benefits of drones to aid their communities during this pandemic.

    Raynor: Normally any modifications are not recommended to be done on our drones because there may be an unpredictable risk or danger. It is better to use the drones and follow the DJI user-manual. To better solve the requirements for anti-infection, DJI is trying to develop solutions to suit the needs of anti-infection, such as body temperature measurement.


    Are the various agencies well trained in using drones in operations like this or is there still work to be done? And are some countries better equipped than others?

    David: This is new for everyone. No agency was expecting to deploy drones to combat a global pandemic when they structured their drone programmes and operating procedures, so everyone is learning. I hope that learnings from China and the rest of Asia can be spread to the rest of the world so communities that are affected can benefit from this experience in their action plan.

    Raynor: Generally speaking, users in epidemic prevention work are trained. At least in China, users are trained. As most of the users in the epidemic prevention work are from government agencies, such as police stations, safety can be ensured.


    With the distribution networks struggling while people self-isolate, does a situation like this also highlight the potential benefits of more widespread drone delivery solutions?

    David: Certainly! And it is good to see this becoming more common. How widespread and by what time will be determined by policies and regulations, but it is great to see this application become more widely used and recognised.

    Raynor: Exactly, and drones are also being used in this situation. We can deliver some masks for policemen who are helping with the public management in this period and we can also deliver some food for people.


    If people see all the great ways drones are being used to help in crisis situations, do you think this could help improve the wider public’s appreciation and acceptance of UAV technology in their community?

    David: Yes, despite drones acting as tools that help build our roads, keep our energy flowing and save lives, they often are best highlighted in the media when something goes wrong – as with the Notre Dame fire just last year. It makes working in the drone industry interesting, as we tend to be the busiest and most appreciated in times of challenge. At the same time, it highlights just how critical drones are becoming to the function of society at large.


    Is there the potential for us to learn from this and perhaps find even more efficient ways to use drone technology ahead of future emergency scenarios?

    David: Definitely, what exactly the most important learning is will only be known months or years after the pandemic is over, but we have seen other crises lead to significant learnings as well.

    Raynor: UAVs can be definitely used in an efficient response system. Currently, UAV solutions have been widely used in fire, flood and other emergency scenarios, and have delivered rich value. UAVs can be used to build a more mature emergency response system, which is also in line with the development needs of the world.


    How are these current events likely to propel public safety solutions to the fore through 2020 and beyond?

    David: The current pandemic really highlights the role of a drone as a platform or ‘Swiss-army knife’, where a single Mavic 2 Enterprise or Matrice 200 Series V2 drone can be used for public broadcast, measuring temperatures, delivering medicine and more. This will likely lead agencies to prioritise platform flexibility, such as available modules and SDKs, and incentivise solution developers to offer swappable ‘kits’ that outfit the platform for a specific mission.

    Raynor: We will think more about how UAVs can be used in epidemic prevention scenarios. For example, to improve the temperature measurement accuracy of UAVs. At present this function is mainly limited by the infrared core of other manufacturers, so we also hope that the entire UAV industry chain can develop synchronously as soon as possible.

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