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Emerging Tech Gets Off the Ground Amid Pandemic Response

Drones, thermal imaging and contact tracing got traction in all levels of government as COVID-19 broke down procurement barriers, sped up development and paved the way for getting new tech up and running.

A Starship delivery robot on a sidewalk.
They say necessity is the mother of invention, and rarely has the gov tech industry seen greater need for technical solutions to new problems than it did in 2020. COVID-19 presented an all-hands-on-deck challenge for gov tech, and the crisis turned out to be more of a catalyst for change than an obstacle to it. Telework became the norm, network capacity and security became paramount, and state and local governments that had already invested in some emerging technologies of the last decade, such as cloud, digital service delivery and higher network speeds, found themselves more prepared than those that did not. Disaster notwithstanding, a spirit of innovation permeated both private and public sides of the industry, and several technological advances offered a glimpse of what’s to come.

Cellphone location data didn’t become any less controversial in 2020, but it did become more important. For many governments, including those in Hong Kong, Singapore, Europe and eventually the U.S., it was essential for mobile-based contact tracing — the process of isolating outbreaks of the virus by tracking down everyone who came into contact with someone who tested positive. Absent a contact tracing strategy from the U.S. federal government, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) worked with a multinational team on a solution, and Apple and Google released a kit for state governments to make their own. Some did, some didn’t, and some states refused to approve the technology out of concerns about privacy and surveillance. Mobile-based contact tracing in the U.S. was a piecemeal effort that never fully took off, but it garnered the attention of innovators around the world and got people debating about new regulations to guard people’s privacy in the future. The jury’s still out on where that leads.

Another controversial technology that saw its use cases multiply during COVID-19, drones helped local police departments enforce social distancing rules, while the Federal Aviation Administration approved them for UPS and Amazon Prime package deliveries and for the transport of goods and medical supplies, under particular circumstances. At least one police department said it used drones to visually inspect dead bodies when found in someone’s home, in order to avoid the risk of infecting officers with COVID-19. Some departments proposed using drones to identify people with symptoms of the virus — a Canadian company announced a drone with specialized sensors and cameras that could supposedly detect fever, measure heart and respiratory rates, and identify coughs and sneezes — but relented when citizens and civil liberties groups protested. Somewhat less controversially, on the ground, robots started delivering food from grocery stores and restaurants, and in some cases COVID-19 tests to and from hospitals.

Some people still called it invasive when not mounted on a drone, but thermal imaging also became a hot technology in 2020, as millions of people contracted a virus whose symptoms include a fever. Demand for thermal imaging spiked, largely but not entirely in the private sector, as managers looked for ways to minimize spread of illness when reopening their facilities. The technology is already commonplace in parts of Europe and Asia, but some citizens and civil liberties groups in the U.S. wondered whether it might be intrusive, inaccurate or of questionable use in the long term. Regardless, state and local governments invested considerable time and effort in novel adaptations to the novel coronavirus, and all indications point to these technologies sticking around.

This story is part of our 2020 Year in Review series.

Andrew Westrope is managing editor of the Center for Digital Education. Before that, he was a staff writer for Government Technology, and previously was a reporter and editor at community newspapers. He has a bachelor’s degree in physiology from Michigan State University and lives in Northern California.