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Do Drones Have a Realistic Place in the COVID-19 Fight?

Desperate times sometimes call for new measures, but U.S. policy and experts suggest that drones will not be used in advanced operations related to COVID-19 without further testing and discussion.

Various news reports show that drones have played a role in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic in countries like China and Spain, but the United States seems more likely to take a wait-and-see approach with the emerging technology. 

Nations across the world have imposed quarantines in an attempt to control the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). Some of these countries have utilized drones to help reinforce the message that people need to stay home. The Deccan Chronicle reports that in Spain, Kuwait and United Arab Emirates, drones equipped with loudspeakers have been telling roaming citizens to go back to their homes. 

“We won’t hesitate to use all the measures we have at our disposal to look out for your safety and everyone’s safety,” the Municipal Police of Madrid said on Twitter

According to South China Morning Post, drones have provided a similar type of surveillance in China, but that’s not the only way the country has used drones in response to the coronavirus outbreak. Agricultural models have been modified to spray disinfectant on public areas, and drones have also transported medical and quarantine supplies to reduce people’s exposure to each other and reduce delivery time. 

Whether these ideas could work in the United States depends on drone regulation, which is the responsibility of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). U.S. drone users must receive FAA waivers to do a number of activities, including flying drones at night, over people, beyond line of sight and at higher altitudes. 

Government Technology asked the FAA if any of its recent waivers for drone operations were related to use cases in response to COVID-19. An agency spokesperson provided a response via email: “We have no way of knowing if any recent applications for registration, certificates, waivers, or exemptions are the result of COVID-19.”

In addition to the waivers one would need to perform advanced operations like delivering supplies at night, drone technology is quite nascent. Ken Stewart, CEO of AiRXOS, said the young market is fragmented. Some groups, like AiRXOS, specialize in enabling operations by helping with regulation waivers and such, others concentrate on flying drones, and so on. Only a few companies, such as Google and Amazon, have the ability to do everything at once. 

“There’s still a lot of players you would have to cull together to perform an operation,” Stewart said. 

Christopher Todd, executive director of the Airborne International Response Team, said many reported drone operations in other countries as part of a response to COVID-19 have been “more hype than reality.” 

“There’s a lot of people excited about drone technology… and they’re trying to put a square peg in a round hole,” Todd said. “Just because you can do something with a drone doesn’t mean it’s the right way to do it.” 

For example, Todd wonders why someone would use a drone over a tank truck to spray disinfectant on outside areas. 

Stewart pointed out that cultural and policy differences might allow countries to perform unsafe drone operations. Stewart said the U.S. has the safest airspace in the world due to FAA regulations, while the rules in China are "very different." 

What’s more, using a drone to deliver a test sample, for instance, could result in an accident or cause a citizen to panic, which would make first responders’ jobs even more difficult during a pandemic-related mission. 

“You don’t want to add additional burdens to them [responders] without something that’s been well thought through,” Stewart said. 

This is not to say that U.S. organizations aren’t considering how drones could assist with the coronavirus crisis. Earlier this month, as reported by Politico, the Small UAV Coalition filed a request for expedited FAA waivers so that drones can be used to carry supplies in both rural and metropolitan areas. Meanwhile, DRONERESPONDERS has formed a task force for “potential use cases and mission planning needs for drone operations surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to an email received by Government Technology

“The most important thing we’re going to get out of this is find out the best use cases… so that the next time something like this [COVID-19] happens, we’ll have the technology ready to go,” Todd said. 

Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.