Drones and COVID19: Have we seen it all?

by | May 31, 2020

An article from our Student Contribution series by Kshitij Tiwari, Postdoctoral Research Fellow Aalto University School of Science and Technology. Student Contributions are written in a personal capacity and do not necessarily represent the opinion of The Futures Project.

The Futures Project’s mission statement says “from hindsight to insight to foresight” which I believe is what the world needs to ensure a sustainable future for mankind. As outlined in the UN’s Agenda 2030, such an effort requires collaborations at a global scale to nurture innovations with a value-based vision. To this end, I would like to discuss the role that robots (primarily drones) can play especially for the betterment of the lives of those currently positioned lowest in the societal pyramid. In particular, I would like to discuss how farmers and daily wage earners can be empowered, should such a pandemic like COVID-19 reoccur and how they could work towards financial stability in such scenarios.

Over the past few months, world leaders and government agencies from across the globe have implemented local, regional and/or national policies to best contain the outbreak of the infamous coronavirus or COVID-19. While the medical experts sprung to action to propose best practices to flatten the curve, the patient recovery rate remains at a staggering 36% with a 7% fatality rate (based on the global estimates that were recorded during the time of writing this article). The pandemic has pushed the limits of our service delivery systems and hence began the rise of utilization of robots to aid frontline workers amidst other community-driven efforts like food distribution.

As described in the Annexure- 1 of this report published by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), the use cases of drones during the COVID-19 scenario can be broadly classified as:

  • Logistics & hyperlocal deliveries: In this case, the drones are primarily utilized for delivering medical suppliesand essentials as demonstrated by startups like Zipline and Flytrex amongst many others across the globe.
  • Health & Hygiene: Drones in several parts of the world have been retrofitted with powerful disinfectants that are being sprayed at designated areas. Some others have attempted to utilize thermal imagery to detect fever amongst masses. However, each of these applications have also attracted respective criticisms from experts: while some drone operators like Atom Drones claim to kill 99.9% of bacteria within minutes of spraying a disinfectant, the authorities like Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) disagree with the utility of such disinfection. This has sparked widespread debates over the benefits of such disinfection. As for the use of thermal imagery for detecting fever from a distance, some agencies claim to have a pandemic drone that detects crowds and symptoms. Yet experts criticize that thermal cameras work best from close proximity, thus with the added disturbance from the drone propellers they are not likely to provide useful information.
  • Surveillance & Law Enforcement: To ensure the respect of social distancing and public safety, several law enforcement agencies partnered with local drone operators to retrofit drones with speakers for urging people to maintain proper distance and harness the drones as eyes in the sky to maintain law and order.

Yet one might ask whether there is something that the drones could do differently so as to also positively impact the lives of those in the lowest strata of the society. Have we already seen it all?

One must consider the toll that such a pandemic has had on migrant and daily wage earners who now struggle to make ends meet as the global economy has come to a complete standstill. Another group which has especially been hit by the pandemic is the farmers. The harvest is not reaching the consumers and  new crops cannot be planted. In the past, drones have been used in agriculture to spray pesticides because it assisted employing precision farming techniques to minimize the pesticide use and spray it where it is really needed. Yet, with the growing awareness for sustainable cropping and natural farming practices like permaculture, such applications would slowly fade away. So how could we help farmers in their production? To quote Zippy Duvall, President of the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF),

“Empty shelves can be frightening, but empty fields and barns would be devastating.”

Again, the main question is worth reiterating:  Have we exhausted the limits of drone technology as a helpful resource during and beyond the pandemic, or might there be other ways of using this technology for social good, especially to help farmers, migrant workers, and others most vulnerable to the effects of the pandemic?