Drones and the COVID19 Pandemic

Drones have been progressively making a positive impact in many aspects of public safety. Presently, the Coronavirus (COVID19), has impacted every citizen in the world regarding health, financial and/or social circumstances.

Immediately, DRONERESPONDERS stood up a COVID19 Task Force to begin exploring, learning and sharing ways that drones might be able to assist in response to this global health emergency. The intent was not designed to push the use of drones but more importantly to identify when and where drones could effectively assist public safety. Additionally, this gives DRONERESPONDERS an opportunity to identify new uses and determine the intersection of use cases and needed regulatory changes. This Task Force will also look at how this pandemic affects public safety drone programs as agencies experience reduced staffing. DRONERESPONDERS is also having discussions with the European Emergency Number Association Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Program and Interpol to share this information.

Very quickly, drones were seen in China spraying disinfectant and using thermal imaging to identify people who might have a fever and need to be quarantined. It is not clear how effective that these two early examples may have been. In Italy, Spain, France and other countries have been successfully flying drones with speakers to identify and disperse large gatherings to prevent the spread of the virus. In Europe, they are being more forceful and when people do not heed the warnings they are fined and possibly arrested. At the end of March, the Chula Vista California Police Department announced they are using their drone as a First Responder Program to monitor and disperse large gatherings by increasing their drone fleet and adding speakers and using thermal image cameras for night flights. Such flights can cover large areas and provide the means for this activity while preventing human contact with and contaminating responders. This type of action is somewhat limited in the United States due to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations. At the time of this article, DRONERESPONDERS has been having positive discussions with the FAA to explore waivers to implement procedures that will enable responders to safely utilize drones for similar purposes while maintaining safety of the National Airspace (NAS).

Regardless of COVID19, drones continue to be of value in the successful ways that public safety is deploying drones. One new innovative and very beneficial area in the use of drones is in the monitoring of the vulnerable homeless population to identify if there are any needs. This allows public safety to monitor safely, regularly and without human contact and potential exposure to COVID19. The monitoring of the homeless population benefits from this due to underlying health issues and potential higher vulnerability to COVID19.

There has been a huge amount of interest expressed in package deliveries to include such things as medical supplies, prescriptions, blood and COVID19 test kits. Unfortunately, regulations regarding package delivery are significantly more complicated because effective package delivery requires flying beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) and flight operations over people. BVLOS and flight operations over people usually require FAA waivers to allow such operations. On the package delivery side of the house, companies like UPS, Google Wing, Matternet and Zipline have done successful testing and are performing package deliveries. In the United States, most of these package deliveries started and continue to be tested through the FAA’s UAS Integration Projects (IPPs).

While commercial UAS flights fall under the Part 107 rules, package delivery falls under a different set of regulations (Part 135) which use type certification of the UAS which may require a specific weight limitation or a parachute to protect people on the ground if it unexpectedly fell from the sky. The reason is to create a higher set of standards for BVLOS and operations over people for safety of the National Airspace and safety of people on the ground. Abroad, Zipline has a phenomenal record of over 20,000 deliveries of medical supplies and blood to underserved areas. One thing to keep in mind and worth repeating is that it’s not about using drones just because drones can do something, it’s about using drones when drones can do something better, safer or because other methods such as ground transportation are no longer viable. At the time of this article, ground transportation is meeting the needs of package delivery.

As this global pandemic continues to spread, there are other concerns that are surfacing. As mentioned, public safety agencies have experienced or will experience personnel reductions from COVID19 positive tests or quarantine from exposure to COVID19 confirmed cases. In one day, New York City Police had over 2000 officers (or seven percent) off duty due to COVID19 either due to direct exposure to confirmed cases or liberal leave for officers not feeling well. While initial crime is generally down, there is a concern that as more people are asked to stay in lock down that some types of crimes may increase.  This highlights an area where drones can be used as a force multiplier. Drones can be flown from a central location by a single remote pilot and cover multiple blocks. Drones equipped with thermal image cameras can help make night patrols more effective.

It is very clear that drones can make a huge difference in response to COVID19 and the many other public safety operations that have been previously highlighted for enhanced safety and improved operational effectiveness. This will be a time for DRONERESPONDERS to explore, learn, collaborate and share information, best practices, lessons learned and identify areas of needed regulatory changes. Become part of the conversation by joining DRONERESPONDERS at DRONERESPONDERS.ORG. Membership is free and DRONERESPONDERS is the fastest growing public safety UAS program focused on all aspects of the drone ecosystem — enabling drones for good, countering drones for bad and air traffic management.

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