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Public Concern Grounds COVID-19 Drone Pilot in Connecticut

Police in Westport, Conn., thought they had found a viable method to monitor the COVID-19 outbreak in the form of a new drone, but public comments inspired the local department to abandon the technology.

Draganfly Screenshot - YouTube
A thermal image of a person coughing.
Courtesy Draganfly via YouTube Screenshot
Recently, a Connecticut police department backed out of a program that would have used drones to monitor whether citizens show signs of COVID-19 infection, but the company behind the tech says other local pilot programs are in the works. 

Westport Police Department decided against participating in the “Flatten the Curve Pilot” two days after announcing its intention to test new drone technology from company Draganfly. According to a news release from Draganfly, the drone uses a “specialized sensor and computer vision systems” that can detect fever, measure heart and respiratory rates, and identify whether people are coughing, sneezing or practicing social distancing. The drone can reportedly do all of this from up to 190 feet away. Facial recognition, however, isn’t part of the equation. 

According to the press release announcing the Westport project, such drones wouldn’t be used around private yards, but they would help monitor “beaches, train stations, parks and recreation areas, and shopping centers.” Westport Police Chief Foti Koskinas said COVID-19 has ushered in an age where drones need to be utilized for public safety. 

“Westport and its first responder network is one of the most progressive public safety advocates in the nation,” Koskinas said in the release. “They are real pioneers when it comes to adopting and integrating new technology to protect its community.”

During a phone call with Government Technology, Westport Police Department confirmed that it wanted to be transparent about its intention to use Draganfly’s drones, with the expectation that the public would make its feelings known upon learning about the program. 

The department indeed received both positive and negative feedback. Not wanting to divide the community of Westport, the agency canceled the project after discussing the issue with Westport First Selectman Jim Marpe, who noted in the follow-up press release that some citizens “perhaps misinterpreted” the thrust of the pilot. 

“Although I see the greater potential of this technology, I will always be responsive and respectful of the concerns of our citizens in every decision that I make,” Koskinas said in the release. 

Hartford Courant reported that the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut criticized the Westport pilot as a chance for Draganfly “to market their products and create future business opportunities.”

“Any new surveillance measure that isn’t being advocated for by public health professionals and restricted solely for public health use should be promptly rejected,” said David McGuire, executive director of ACLU of Connecticut, as reported by Hartford Courant, “and we are naturally skeptical of towns announcing these kinds of partnerships without information about who is operating the drones, what data they will collect, or how, or if that data will be stored, shared or sold.”

Despite the setback for Draganfly, CEO Cameron Chell told Venture Beat that the company has two more pilots lined up. Both pilots would be in the private sector, though Chell added that Draganfly has gotten “requests from other jurisdictions” in the public sector. Chell also remarked that initial testing in Westford showed promise. 

“The technology worked in a real-world environment,” Chell told Venture Beat. “So that was successful. We were able to get very good operational social distancing data. And the working relationship between the public safety officials and us was also a success.” 

Local areas in the United States have started using drones to specifically respond to COVID-19 in recent weeks. The main use case has been issuing public service announcements about social distancing via drone loudspeakers, but departments are experimenting in other ways, such as sending drones to conduct visual investigations in homes where people have died of COVID-19.

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.