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How drones could be used during the COVID-19 response

International first responders have used drones for observation, sharing messages with the public and even decontamination


City police officers with the help of a drone monitor citizens’ movements in Grosseto, central Italy, Friday, March 20, 2020.

Jennifer Lorenzini/LaPresse via AP

By Bear Afkhami and Arnie Selnick

The lightest piece of apparatus in the fire bay could prove to be an invaluable tool to assist with the COVID-19 response.

Throughout the pandemic response, numerous applications for drones, or small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS), have been successfully implemented in other countries. It is important to note, however, that some of these uses are boundary-pushing and, here in the United States, could even be considered an infringement on civil liberties.

During national emergencies, it is expected that responders will think outside the box and use the tools available to them to help limit exposure and, ultimately, flatten the curve. That being said, any use of tools, like drones, outside of normal scope/policy for deployment should be done in cooperation with and knowledge of local emergency government, EOC and public health department.

Tactical and strategic use of drones during COVID-19 response

Public safety leaders should think of an sUAS as an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance tool with the ability to provide command officers and emergency operations centers (EOCs) information that was previously either unavailable or extremely difficult to obtain in a safe and timely manner.

The COVID-19 response has shown that the tools of sUAS deployed within emergency operations can include more than a simple “eye in the sky” aid.

Real-time unfiltered visual observation: This type of observation can be transmitted to either unit officers at the incident, command officers in the field or stakeholders, such as command officers, PIOs, political staff, etc., at an activated EOC.

In China, pandemic response teams have deployed drones over crowds in order to not only observe, but to enforce curfews and identify those not taking mandatory precautions, such as wearing masks.

In Spain, as the number of positive tests continue to rise, more lockdown recommendations and orders are being put in place. The police have taken to deploying drones over crowds not complying with social distancing recommendations and broadcasting messages over speakers to force crowds to disperse.

The Chula Vista Police Department in California announced that it plans to use drones equipped with loudspeakers to identify individuals who defy the coronavirus lockdown and instruct them to go home. And in New Jersey, a drone was used to capture video of long lines of cars at a coronavirus testing site. Could drones be used to remotely monitor line length, people leaving vehicles or even conflict within a line?

Thermal imaging: The latest field within the intelligence community to be developed includes the usage of measurements and signatures intelligence (MASINT). There are reports from China that thermal imaging cameras on drones deployed over high-exposure situations are taking the temperatures of groups of people and have the ability to take the temperatures of individual patients under investigation (PUI).

Recording: The ability of post-event investigators and training officers to review incident response history is an invaluable tool and very much applicable to the COVID-19 response. For example, recordings of responses in hot zones or any incident can be used to evaluate and teach best practices in a way that has not been available before. The recordings can also be used by emergency planners and even epidemiologists to later observe the behaviors of people during emergencies.

Object delivery: sUAS are increasingly becoming a tool for transporting small objects from one point to another, saving time and entering harder to reach places.

The transporting of goods from one place to another by drones has already been in practice, albeit in more infrequent and test environments. Medical supplies, such as insulin, were transported into hard-to-reach places after the Hurricane Dorian devastated the Bahamas. Organs have already been transported from hospital to hospital within cities.

With social distancing and quarantines becoming a way of life for much of the country, drones may be called upon to transport more critical medications to vulnerable patients in order to reduce contact. Testing kits and samples can also be transported from patients to testing centers or from testing center to testing center.

Decontamination: Drones traditionally used in agricultural spraying have been deployed in China to spray disinfectant on multiple types of surfaces. This application may prove useful in disinfecting interior and exterior structures of places that have had positive COVID-19 results. Drones could even be used at central maintenance facilities to spray fire and EMS apparatus in order to reduce the risk of exposure to responders.

Drone benefits

When it comes to social distancing, sUAS offers to capture intelligence, distribute messages, deliver medical equipment and supplies, and even disinfect surfaces – all with reduced exposure for first responders. Also, the traditional applications, such as establishing zones for rescuers to avoid, may now become even more valuable as response systems are taxed. For example, drones already in the air can more quickly be deployed to a structure fire call with reports of smoke. The drone pilot and observer can quickly confirm the presence of smoke or flames, thereby being able to confirm, reduce or upgrade the alarm.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, such triage capabilities would save valuable time and resources, which are already beginning to be taxed.

The federal government, specifically the Department of Defense, has recently stated that they have no plans to use drones to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, from a local and state jurisdictional standpoint, and especially within those departments with already established sUAS programs, we may start to see similar and more creative uses of drones to address COVID-19. Again, any use of tools, like drones, outside of normal scope/policy for deployment should be done in cooperation with and knowledge of local emergency government, EOC and public health department.

Editor’s Note: In what other ways could drones be used during the COVID-19 pandemic? Share your thoughts in the comments below.


About the authors

Bear Afkhami has over 10 years of service in the emergency services sector in numerous fire service, continuity of operations plan (COOP), military and intelligence roles. Afkhami is currently director of innovation and development at JMA Solutions and serves on numerous committees involving the study and standards of UAS.

Arnie Selnick has over 20 years of military service and 20 years of engineering and program management experience, including with FAA UAS programs. Selnick is currently vice president of strategy and business development at JMA Solutions.