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Drones and COVID-19—7 Ways Drones Are Helping Fight the Spread of the Coronavirus

The commercial drone industry has had to fight negative press since its inception.

Five years ago, when drones were just starting to be sold widely for aerial photography and videography, public opinion commonly held that drones were either aerial killing machines or creepy tools for invading your privacy.

Since then drones have become more mainstream, but public opinion has been slow to fully catch up. Until now.

With the advent of the coronavirus, drones have rocketed into the public eye as a useful tool for fighting its spread.

In recent weeks we’ve seen articles in major news outlets describing the various ways that drones are being used to fight the spread of COVID-19, bringing drone technology thoroughly into the mainstream as a public good.

In this article, we’re going to look at seven different ways drones are being used to fight COVID-19 throughout the world. The list is roughly organized from the most common to the least common use cases, based on the amount of coverage we’ve seen of each one.

1. Flying Loudspeakers

One of the most common use case for drones in the COVID-19 fight is as flying loudspeakers.

While the approach taken has varied from one country—or even one county—to the next, the general idea is that drones can fly over a crowd and share information via a loudspeaker about the importance of social distancing without requiring a person to walk up and speak, thus keeping public safety officers out of harm’s way while still conveying important messages.

In Wuhan, China, drones have been used as a loudspeaker to fly over people congregating or not wearing masks and ask them to go home, or to put on masks.

In Chula Vista, CA, where the police department is a member of the federal UAS Integration Pilot Program (UAS IPP), the police plan to use drones to broadcast social distancing information among vulnerable homeless populations.

Here is a list of just some of the countries we’ve heard of that are using drones as loudspeakers to fight the spread of COVID-19:

  • Belgium

  • Brazil

  • China

  • France

  • Portugal

  • Spain

  • United States

2. Enforcement of Curfews and Quarantines

In addition to using drones to broadcast messages about key safety practices to avoid the spread of COVID-19, public safety agencies throughout the world have been using drone technology to help with curfew and quarantine compliance.

Image Credit: XAG

The most common use case here is for those in public safety to utilize drones to find out about large gatherings of people—that is, gatherings that pose a high risk of spreading the coronavirus—and then try to break them up using drones as a loudspeaker or simply driving by with a megaphone.

This is another use case that has seen widespread adoption, with countries as diverse as Morocco, the Netherlands, France, and Spain using it.

3. Medical Drone Delivery

When people talk about using drones to fight the spread of the coronavirus, medical drone deliveries are often top of mind.

Image Credit: UPS

We’ve seen drone deliveries picking up speed in the last three months, since quarantine efforts have been implemented throughout the world.

Terra Drone’s Antwork has been conducting medical drone deliveries in China to help minimize human contact and reduce the chances of spreading the virus.

And in the U.S., companies like UPS and Zipline have started ramping up medical drone deliveries to help with anti-COVID-19 efforts. Similar medical delivery work is underway throughout the world.

4. Package Drone Delivery

Package delivery by drone is another way that drones are helping reduce human contact, and thus contributing to containment efforts during the global pandemic.

Wing’s commercial drone delivery program in Christiansburg, VA has grown exponentially since quarantine efforts began, making a record 1,000 deliveries within two weeks in April alone.

Image Credit: Wing

Two other drone delivery programs have been recently launched in the U.S.—both within the line of visual sight (VLOS)—one by Flytrex in North Dakota, and one by UPS in Florida for prescription medications.

5. Spraying Disinfectant

One of the more novel uses for drones in the COVID-19 fight has been retrofitting agricultural drones, made to spray substances like insecticides to help with farming, so that they can spray disinfectant instead.

Image Credit: DJI

In China, both DJI and XAG have made changes to their ag drones so that they can be used to spray disinfectants.

DJI’s Agras drone has been used to spray a chlorine alcohol-based disinfectant in areas potentially affected by the coronavirus, covering over 3 million square meters with disinfectant in Shenzhen, where the company is based. The company says that spraying disinfectant is “50 times faster than traditional methods.”

In addition to outfitting its drones to spray disinfectant, XAG has established a fund of 5 million yuan (about $715,000) to support volunteers who want to use the company's agriculture drones to help stop the spread of the coronavirus.

6. Carrying Banners

A less common use case for drones in the COVID-19 fight is outfitting them as flying banners, carrying important information about how to prevent the spread of the virus.

7. Taking Thermal Readings

When the coronavirus first hit the global stage there was a lot of talk about how drones outfitted with thermal cameras could help prevent its spread.

Image Credit: Draganfly

The two primary use cases for thermal drones in the COVID-19 fight are 1) To take temperatures remotely so those who might be infected can find out without having to leave their homes, and 2) To identify those in a crowd who might be sick with COVID-19 so that they can be removed them from the crowd in order to avoid spreading the virus.

The first thermal use case has seen some traction in China, as you can see in the video below.

However, the second use case seems to be mostly hype.

Although some companies have talked a lot about the value of remote thermal readings for security at large events in the new world of the coronavirus, the truth seems to be that thermal technology is better suited for temperature readings in crowds by being placed in a static location on the ground, not flying overhead.

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