Your plan to use “drones for good” might not be all that good. That’s the tl;dr of a memo issued by Chinese drone maker DJI.
DJI released a memo through its enterprise division titled “DJI Drone Potential Use-Cases for COVID-19 Response,” acknowledges that — while there are a number of ways drones can aid in containment efforts — not all coronavirus drone projects are as valuable as some might think.
The DJI memo leads with a diagram designed by non-profit WeRobotics spelling out questions you should ask before embarking on a coronavirus drone project.
Some of the flowchart’s key points:
- Always ask the people who you think will benefit from drones if they think drones will benefit them
- Consider if the problem could be solved through other means besides drones
“If drones are unlikely to add value in the way that you had hoped (at least for the time being), then accept this,” a post from WeRobotics stated. “Leave the drones aside and ask if you can help in any other way.”
The memo was coordinated by Romeo Durscher, DJI’s Sr. Director of Public Safety Integration, and ret. Fire Chief Wayne Baker, the company’s Director of Public Safety Integration.
With that said, DJI spelled out a number of coronavirus drone projects. Those include:
- Sharing Information from the Air by use of a Speaker
- Live Video & A.I. Real Time Notifications
- Community Patrol for Public Safety
- Homeless Camp Evaluations
- Pre-planning & Overwatch over Drive Through Test Sites
- Bio and Chemical Decon for Drones
- Streaming & Connectivity
- Body Temperature Check
- Aerial Spraying of Disinfectant Agents (Modified Agras)
From there, DJI listed the pros and cons of each one. Some have more cons than pros, and vice versa. DJI itself has participated in a few coronavirus drone projects, including spraying disinfectant and outfitting police departments with loud-speaker equipped drones.
Here are some of the highlights:
Drones with loudspeakers
Drones equipped with speakers have been useful in helping police communicate messages while retaining social distancing. The DJI Mavic 2 Enterprise drone easily integrates with an accessory called the M2E Speaker, which projects up to 10 custom voice recordings on demand — a case that’s generally accepted as useful to keep law enforcement safe, but still serve a clear purpose. In fact, DJI actually distributed 100 Mavic 2 Enterprise Zoom drones (including the speaker) to nearly four dozen police, fire and public safety organizations across the U.S. One of those agencies is the Daytona Beach Police Department in Fla., which said it would attach loudspeakers to Mavic 2 Enterprise drones to spot groups of people gathering and warn them to disperse without endangering any police officers. That’s a similar idea to one suggested by the Chula Vista Police Department in San Diego, Calif.
Drone delivery, another popular use case given the need to receive groceries, medication and, yes, toilet paper, directly to homes is also discussed in the memo. DJI calls it a “time and resource saver,” enabling the “potential for no-contact delivery” that “can reach hard to get to areas fast.”
But as the WeRobotics flowcharts indicates, it can be tricky to navigate “legal, privacy and policy frameworks” around drone delivery in particular. The DJI memo doesn’t just called out policy issues, but also questions proper delivery mechanism for drones (ie. box, lowering lines).
Drones for body temperature checks
And for some use-cases, like body temperature checks, DJI clearly spells out that the cons outweigh the pros by a huge margin.
“Currently available data does not suggest the usefulness of these
applications, however, we are including them in this document for transparency and informational purposes as they have been used in other countries’ responses to COVID-19,” the memo states. “Departments that choose to utilize these below use cases are strongly urged o consider the cons listed, as well as seek appropriate regulatory approvals prior to use.”
Technically, DJI suggests using drones for body temperature checks is unfeasible.
“Units will have to be operated within (6 feet of the subject) to get proper readings, thus within the area of exposure determined by WHO/CDC, thus increasing risk of infection by personnel,” the document states.
Canadian drone company Draganfly got into hot water recently after the the Westport Police Department in Connecticut said it would use their drones to detect people sneezing and coughing in crowds, while also displaying fever, temperature, heart and respiratory rates.
Most of the heat they took was over privacy concerns, which DJI also noted as a potential problem.
Drones for aerial spraying
Another interesting tidbit from the DJI memo is on the topic of drones for spraying. DJI now says skip it — even though they previously used drones for spraying disinfectant in the past.
Back in February, DJI said its Agras drones, which are designed for agricultural spraying (usually pesticides and herbicides) would be spraying disinfectant in potentially affected areas. In a February press release, DJI said it had sprayed disinfectant in over 3 million square meters in Shenzhen, home of the DJI headquarters).
Now, DJI says to skip spraying drones completely.
“The widespread practice of spraying disinfectant and alcohol in the sky, on roads, vehicles, and personnel has no value,” the memo states. “Moreover, large quantities of alcohol and disinfectant are potentially harmful to humans and should be avoided.”
Plus, DJI added that “potential environmental risks to wildlife such as plant and animal life due to inability to control runoff of contaminated liquids and chemicals decreases the limited benefit of use.”
But for what it’s worth, scientific opinion has changed frequently, so it makes sense that opinions on drone use during coronavirus can change too.
“Although COVID-19 is spread by the airborne route, air disinfection of cities and communities is not known to be effective for disease control and needs to be stopped,” the document states, acknowledging that past practices might not have had bad intent, but we should quash them now.
And given that coronavirus containment efforts are constantly evolving, so is the memo. The memo, which was first released on March 25, 2020, was updated on Aprill 15.
No one has experienced a pandemic on this scale, so even experts are changing their opinions based on new findings — and that’s okay.
“Much like disaster response, this document is dynamic and will be added regularly,” a note in the memo stated. “Incidents are never the same, and as such — as critical issues are encountered — new uses and approaches will evolve.”
Durscher and Baker hosted a webinar last week diving deeper into lessons they’ve learned since the coronavirus response. You can request to watch of a recording of that webinar from DJI.