Drone technology: A new ally in the fight against COVID-19

By Liz Meszaros
Published April 8, 2020

Key Takeaways

Necessity is said to be the mother of invention, and nowhere in recent memory has necessity been greater than during the COVID-19 pandemic. As the world struggles to contain the virus and diagnose and treat over a million affected patients, some forward-thinkers are looking to an unlikely source of support for healthcare professionals in combating the virus: drones. 

During a pandemic, drones offer a lot of advantages. For one, they can minimize human interactions—preventing viral transmission. In addition, they can speed up transport by as much as 50% compared with regular vehicle road transport. Drones can also be used to reach remote areas more easily and quickly than standard modes of transportation.

Throughout the world, med tech innovators and scientific researchers are coming together to find innovative ways to use drones to fight COVID-19.

Crowd control

China. In China, both COVID-19, containment efforts, and technology are ahead of the rest of the world. The MicroMultiCopter company, located in Shenzhen, deployed over 100 drones to many Chinese cities to patrol areas and observe crowds. The drones were also capable of identifying people who were not wearing masks in public spaces, and could be used as loudspeakers to broadcast announcements. Likewise, in Spain, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates, drones equipped with loudspeakers were used to broadcast messages, urging residents wandering outside to “go home”.  

Patient monitoring

Australia. A little further south in the Pacific, researchers from the University of South Australia have partnered with Draganfly Inc, a Canadian company, to develop a “pandemic drone” that will remotely detect and monitor individuals with infectious respiratory conditions. A specialized sensor and computer vision system allow the drone to monitor temperatures, heart rates, and respiratory rates, as well as sneezing and coughing in crowds, offices, airports, cruise ships, nursing, long-term care homes, and other group scenarios.

In 2017, this partnership validated image-processing algorithms that made it possible to detect human heart rate on a drone video. Since then, they’ve shown that heart rates and breathing rates can be measured with high accuracy within 10 meters of people using drones and up to 50 meters with fixed cameras. They have also developed algorithms to interpret human actions like coughing and sneezing.

Curiously enough, this technology was originally developed to help in war zones, natural disasters, and remote monitoring of heart rates in premature infants placed in incubators, according to the leader of the University of South Australia’s team, Professor Javaan Chahl, Defense Chair, Sensor Systems.

“Now, shockingly, we see a need for its use immediately, to help save lives in the biggest health catastrophe the world has experienced in the past 100 years,” he said in support of the use of the technology in the fight against COVID-19.

Medication and supply transport

Ireland. Using a new drone technology, researchers successfully delivered insulin from Galway, Ireland, to a patient on the Aran Islands, a remote region off the coast of Galway, and returned with a blood sample from a patient with diabetes for monitoring blood glucose control. The trip was roughly 12 miles each way, and using a vertical takeoff and landing, a Wingcopter 178 drone was flown southwest over the North Atlantic Ocean. The insulin was secured in an insulated package, complete with temperature-monitoring capabilities en route, and a security lock on the package in case the device did not arrive at the right place.

The 32-minute test flight is the “first documented autonomous delivery of insulin for a patient with diabetes,” according to the researchers from the National University of Ireland Galway, who partnered with Wingcopter (an aviation company) and Skytango (a software company in Dublin) in this endeavor. They presented their results at the Endocrine Society Annual Meeting.

They concluded that this technology could one day be used to make urgent deliveries of diabetes medications to remote locations, and hope to explore its potential uses during natural disasters and pandemics, such as COVID-19.

China. Drones have also been used in China to transport medical and quarantine supplies, and spray disinfectants over public areas. Terra Drone is a Japanese company that has obtained the first urban drone delivery license from China to deliver medical and other supplies from Xinchang County’s disease control center to the Xinchang County People’s Hospital, China, without exposing humans to infection.

United States. And, last but not least, the United States is taking important steps to implement drone technology, which is regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Drone users in the United States need FAA waivers to do many things—from flying drones at night to flying them over people, beyond their line of sight, and at higher altitudes.

While US drone use is still in its infancy, there are steps being taken to use them during the current pandemic. The Small Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) Coalition, for example, has filed a request for expedited FAA waivers to enable drones to carry supplies in both rural and metropolitan areas. In addition, the DRONERESPONDERS Public Safety Alliance, a 501(c3) non-profit public safety program, recently formed a task force to plan for and implement the use of drones to meet the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The potential of drone use for healthcare support during this pandemic has not yet been fully realized in the United States. But it holds the promise of many things—drone-delivery of medical supplies such as personal protective equipment, COVID-19 test kits, and test results; medication delivery to rural areas that are not easily accessible; and remote monitoring of patient symptoms, all with minimal personal contact and maximum safety for healthcare providers.

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