Not all “drones for good” are actually good — including this Draganfly temperature checking drone.
A press release from dronemaker Draganfly — intended to show how the company’s “state of the art technology” in the hands of “one of the most progressive public safety agencies in the nation” could “help protect potential at-risk groups” — quickly went south.
Draganfly last week announced that its drones would be tested in Westport, Connecticut, a town in Fairfield county which is considered a coronavirus hotspot and the first town to report the most cases of infections (it is also not far from New York City).
The drones, equipped with a specialized sensor and computer vision systems, would be used by the Westport Police Department to detect people sneezing and coughing in crowds, while also displaying fever, temperature, heart and respiratry rates.
In a news release, Draganfly proudly proclaimed that their “technology can accurately detect infectious conditions from a distance of 190 feet.”
And no surprises here, people hate it.
A small group of protesters who gathered outside the Westport Police Department last week, and the Connecticut ACLU weighed in with their own set of privacy concerns about the Draganfly temperature checking drones.
Police Chief Foti Koskinas announced shortly after that the town would not moving forward with the program since it was “not well-received.”
The drone was supposed to be part of a “Flatten the Curve Pilot Program,” done in partnership with Draganfly, healthcare data company Vital Intelligence Inc and the University of South Australia (UniSA), paid for by tax dollars.
How Draganfly’s drone might have worked in Westport
Dubbed the “pandemic drone,” the drone in question was designed by Canadian-based dronemaker Draganfly.
Draganfly notably last month announced engineering contracts with $8 billion military contractor AeroVironment. Draganfly also received ‘global’ distribution rights of Aerovironment’s premier commercial product, Quantix Mapper, giving Draganfly exclusive rights to distribute the $7,500 commercialized vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) and horizontal flight product.
Separately, Draganfly developed software that uses biometric readings to understand patterns within a population, which it is employing on its new “pandemic drone.”
Draganfly added that it does not employ facial recognition technology, though, it can detect individuals with symptoms.
“Its deep learning algorithms can quickly detect symptoms such as sneezing and coughing, high blood pressure and rapid heartbeats in order to make a diagnosis of disease,” according to Draganfly.
Westport said their police officers would operate the drones over crowds gathering at the town and state-owned beaches, train stations, parks and recreation areas, shopping centers and other areas where people tend to gather “to help protect potential at-risk groups, such as seniors.”
“One of the major problems for cities and towns like Westport in managing and responding to a pandemic like the COVID-19 virus, is finding out who could be infected and how widespread the disease has spread,” said Westport First Selectman, Jim Marpe in a prepared statement. “One way to do this is to look for underlying symptoms.”
Not all “drones for good” are all that good
The news illustrates a broader story developing in the drone industry — one of which drones for good may not be all that good.
Some drone uses cases have been particularly helpful. Drone delivery may have finally found an opportunity to provide added value that traditional couriers haven’t been able to do: true contactless deliveries. And the numbers prove it: By the end of April, Wing (the drone delivery arm of Alphabet, the company formerly known as Google) had doubled the amount of drone deliveries made in the U.S. week-over-week.
A post from non-profit WeRobotics this month called out a number of coronavirus-related drone applications that they felt weren’t as good as they seemed. According to WeRobotics, there is no verifiable benefit to using drones for spraying disinfectant, but they do account for increased pollution. WeRobotics questioned audio broadcasting and cargo delivery.
But one of their strongest messages is against the use of drones for temperature checks.
“Not everyone develops a fever as soon as they’re infected with the coronavirus, nor do they start coughing or sneezing right away,” according to a post from WeRobotics.
WeRobotics also questioned whether the Draganfly temperature checking drones specifically would actually work; noting that the bulk of the university research driving the prototyping is based on experiments with individuals standing motionless in a lab and within 3 meters of the sensors.
“These indoor, lab-based experiments on stationary objects within 3 meters are a far cry from what the drone company claims it will do in coming weeks: correctly detecting fevers from 58 meters away, outdoors in an uncontrolled environment on subjects moving in different directions and at different speeds,” according to WeRobotics.
And as the protests in Westport demonstrated, there are a number of privacy concerns with this use-case — not to mention all drone use-cases, period.
A 2017 Pew study found that 26% of U.S. adults feel nervous around drones. Throw in the stigma around actually being sick yourself, and concerns of “pandemic shaming,” and it’s easy to see why drones scanning crowds for people with fevers might not exactly be well-received.
A memo issued by Chinese dronemaker DJI also warned against using drones for temperature checks including potential privacy and safety concerns of flying over — or in close proximity to — people.
“Potential risks outweigh possible benefits of use,” DJI’s memo said.
Draganfly and the Westport Police Department were likely not aware that a pitch for a product where drones track people with illness might be interpreted negatively.
“The Westport Police Department is one of the most progressive public safety agencies in the nation and real pioneers when it comes to adopting and integrating new technology to enhance the safety of their citizens and first responders,” said Draganfly CEO Cameron Chell in a prepared statement announcing the project last week. “This coronavirus pandemic has opened up a new frontier for advanced drones.”
That new frontier just might not be one people actually want to live in.