The Buzz of the Drone – A Hollywood Dystopia or a Happy End?

Komil Vokhidov

Komil Vokhidov reports on how drones are being used to fight against COVID-19. Check out this story to find out how governments are using drones to tackle public gatherings and tightening public surveillance. 

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The Buzz of the Drone – A Hollywood Dystopia or a Happy End?

With COVID-19, transcending territorial boundaries, more than 4,6 million people are infected and 308,022 have died worldwide since the beginning of the outbreak in Wuhan. As the authorities enforce lockdowns, urging people to stay home, at the battle frontlines heroes of the countries are doctors, nurses, police and newbies – drones on a mission. 

Technology is like an ax. You can either build a house with its help or mortally injure someone. And drones are not an exception. They can be used to investigate the corrupted private property, undeclared in financial declarations of public officials, shoot a video capturing beautiful sights of the sunrise by the sea at Bora Bora … or kill 30 pine nut farm workers in Afghanistan.

As regulations intending to curb the spread of coronavirus worldwide are getting stricter, authorities face the major challenge of ensuring their regulations are followed in this war against “the invisible enemy”, hence inviting drones to act.

Authorities all around the world including the police forces are using drones to conduct the surveillance aiming to reduce people-to-people contact and identify those who do not comply with the restrictions. That is, they use the eye in the sky to monitor and dissociate social gatherings, decreasing the risk of contagion and replacing physical engagement of police officers. With this, however, privacy advocates raise Big Brother concerns while public officials and public health experts claim the urge to suppress transmission in times of crisis.

Alongside the drones functioning as a ubiquitous eye, they are equipped with speakers that can talk too. They can broadcast messages, public awareness campaigns and instructions and hence serve as channels of public health communication. This way, police officers can address the people collectively broadcasting messages and reminders to put on masks or remain inside ensuring the safety of police officials.

For example, in Qatar, the Ministry of Interior has launched a public awareness campaign targeting expatriate communities. The announcements were made using drones in several languages asking people to abstain from social gatherings and not to leave home except for necessary purposes.

On the other hand, the battery lifetime of the drones is far from extensive.

“Although the duration of a drone mission cannot exceed 20-30 minutes on average, due to the limitation of nowadays battery technology, the drone is still a competitive solution in some applications. For example, if you want to have a global view of what is happening on the ground in a relatively large area of the city, drones could be a better option than the conventional ones such as ground patrol,” said Hamid Menouar, Senior Research and Development Expert at Qatar Mobility Innovations Center, an independent innovations center developing locally engineered technological projects aiming to solve technological challenges in Qatar. Menouar is specializing in the application of drones in local transportation systems.

The footage from the Global Times shows that in some rural areas of China, “a sharp-tongued drone” finds a child wandering along the street without a mask and says: “Hey, kid! We are in unusual times! Don’t stroll around outside! You don’t even wear a mask! Hurry and go back home! Run!”. Initially confused, the child nodes, turns around and runs back home.

The capacities of drones, however, are not limited to monitoring and conversing. 

As in Wuhan, the government has implemented a policy of public temperature check, mobilizing medical workers into “round-the-clock shifts to visit each home in Wuhan” and check the temperature of all residents in person. Such policies have appeared effective as the authorities in Wuhan have lifted the lockdown, although medical personnel were exposed to the risk of contagion.

To limit the risk, tech giant DJI has initiated the development of drones equipped with infrared thermal cameras to measure the body temperature of people with the medical staff remaining at a safe distance. This intends to reduce the risk and bring the procedure of temperature checking to a new level. 

Apart from public temperature checks, drones are also suited to the delivery of medical supplies. For example, in the United Kingdom, the National Health System (NHS) expects to transport medical supplies including blood and organs via drones “capable of carrying 100kg for up to 1,000km.”

Groceries too will soon be flying around and landing the bottom of chimneys, just like good old Christmas gifts. In Virginia, after the coronavirus outbreak, Alphabet-owned Wing saw an increase in its drone delivery services, including deliveries of toilet paper, medicine, toothpaste, pasta and baby food.  

“It seems realistic that such an accessory as drones becomes our new necessity,” Menouar added.

Featured image source: America is studying the use of “Drones” to monitor “Corona” from a height of 91 meters

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