Drones: on the front line of the COVID-19 pandemic

Guest Post by: Dewi Madden, UAS Design and Integration Engineer, Frazer-Nash Consultancy.

What comes to mind when you think of drones? The incredible footage you see during National Geographic documentaries? A future means of delivery for your online shopping? In the international effort against the Coronavirus, drones have been playing a front line role across a variety of sectors, helping to make people and organisations’s lives a little easier.

A key issue in the pandemic has been the challenge of getting medical supplies, such as test kits and personal protective equipment (PPE) to the people who need it. Drones are flying across challenging terrain and sea, to deliver vital supplies to medical personnel. In the UK, for example, humanitarian aid transportation company Windracers is using its Ultra delivery drone to fly four times a day to the Isle of Wight, taking just 10 minutes to deliver its PPE payload. In Scotland, drone mobility company Skyports has worked with COMIT member Soarizon (a subsidiary of Thales) to deliver test kits and PPE to people on the Isle of Mull, enabling medical teams to get hold of much needed protection.

Globally, drones are helping some of the estimated two billion people without access to basic medicine and supplies. Healthcare logistics company, Zipline, is using drones to provide critical COVID-19 supplies to communities in Africa – delivering to sites that are 85 kilometres away in under 30 minutes, a journey that would normally take three hours. Because of this, up to 12 million people are now within reach of medical help. Zipline has also started delivering medical supplies on two routes in the United States; and CEO, Keller Rinaudo, has suggested that drones could be employed further, by delivering directly to self-isolating elderly and vulnerable people.

So, it’s clear that drones are playing an important role in medical delivery, but in what other ways are they helping?

Drones delivering disinfectant in cities

As people move from place to place, they leave biological traces on surfaces, park benches, doors, and in the air. In the case of COVID-19, this mean that the virus could be invisibly present in public spaces, and could be picked up by passers-by, particularly in areas of high population density. Authorities are currently employing Public Health Workers to disinfect populated areas; however, this is a long and exhaustive process.

In China, local authorities have used drone technology to disinfect built-up areas. By covering an urban area up to 10 times quicker, when compared to manual labour, the use of drones has led to a sharp increase in effective dispersion. Furthermore, drones used in agriculture have been modified to spray disinfectant. This has helped reduce the risk of unnecessary exposure for those who need essential supplies and provides peace of mind to the public.
Within the construction industry, large commercial projects are using drones for real-time site monitoring, conducting site surveys, safety compliance and completing asset inventory tracking, all the while able to maintain social distancing rules.

Drones are keeping person-to-person contact minimised

All over the world, drastic action is being taken to keep people safe and minimise the number of Coronavirus cases. Drones are a practical and easy solution to make the public aware of lock-down rules, and to announce key government information. In the Netherlands and Malaysia, drones have been used to ensure people are obeying restrictions in public spaces and parks. If people are ignoring the advice, they get a ‘noisy reminder’ to maintain social distancing through on-board speakers. In Kazakhstan, drones are being used to help police patrol the borders of the capital city, with the aim of conducting ‘contactless’ surveillance. This has allowed the local police to manage the lock-down more effectively.

Flying to the rescue in the future?

At Frazer-Nash, we are passionate about drones providing support across society. In their utilisation as part of the COVID-19 response, they have clearly shown their potential to help society, and to provide solutions that are useful not only during the global response to the pandemic, but longer term.

Many of the innovations shown – delivering test kits to patients, or disinfecting your city – draw upon collaboration between the public and private sectors. This highlights the potential of organisations working together to develop new and effective solutions.

We are working with our partners and clients to demonstrate how drones can offer novel solutions to tough challenges across society – from inspecting national infrastructure, to helping enhance our security. Drones have much to offer, as their role in the global response to the pandemic shows.

A version of this article was first published as a blog on the techUK website.

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