Buzzkill: why the hype around drones and COVID-19 is misplaced

A Colombian police officer operates a drone that measures body temperature, in an area of high contagion amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Bogota, Colombia May 20, 2020.
A fever-detection drone in Bogotá, Colombia, May 2020
Image: REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez
  • Drone technology has been deployed in a range of applications during the pandemic.
  • But they have not always been effective - and have, at worst, caused harm.
  • Here's what we know to-date about the ways drones are being used in response to COVID-19, and how useful they actually are.

Drones are increasingly being used in a wide range of humanitarian contexts. This does not always mean they’re useful, however.

They have been used in multiple applications in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, for example. But while some of these applications certainly make sense, others have little to no impact. At worst, they can even cause harm. So let’s review what we know to-date about some of the more novel applications - namely the use of drones to spray disinfectants, detect fevers, broadcast messages, deliver medical supplies and enhance surveillance.

Spraying drones

As The Lancet Journal on Infectious Diseases clearly noted on March 5, 2020: “Air disinfection of cities and communities is not known to be effective for disease control and needs to be stopped. The widespread practice of spraying disinfectant and alcohol in the sky, on roads, vehicles, and personnel has no value; moreover, large quantities of alcohol and disinfectant are potentially harmful to humans and should be avoided.”

The City of Mumbai has decided not to use drones to disinfect containment zones, noting that “drones are ineffective in cleansing major touch points which have been identified across the containment clusters... It will release the disinfectant on rooftops or surfaces where the virus is not present, rendering the activity completely useless.”

Fever-detecting drones

The use of drones for remote fever-detection has received considerable attention in the media. Unfortunately, very few have actually questioned the efficacy or even viability of this application. The fact is, fever-detecting drones don’t work. This has not stopped dozens of companies and even humanitarian organizations from using drones to 'detect' fevers in response to the pandemic.

Broadcasting drones

Some drones now carry built-in speakers to broadcast verbal messages. These have been used by local police in multiple countries to 'enforce' lockdowns and related measures such as physical distancing. The results are somewhat mixed. In some cases, the use of broadcasting drones is largely ignored. In others, broadcasting drones appear to intimidate passersby who then quickly disperse. But we’ve also seen these broadcasting drones do the very opposite by forming crowds of curious onlookers. Whether broadcasting drones serve an effective purpose will depend on a host of considerations including, for example, cultural, social, economic, historical and political factors.

Delivery drones

Using cargo drones to deliver essential medicines and to collect patient samples is being widely promoted during the pandemic response. We have documented the use of delivery drones in response to COVID-19 in more than 15 countries to-date. The vast majority of these delivery drone services were already in place or in the pipeline well before the pandemic. We have seen very few examples of new delivery services being set up from scratch. This is largely due to a combination of factors including logistics, regulations and the digital divide.

In addition, there are very few examples of medical drone deliveries specifically geared towards small, rural communities in particularly remote areas, even outside of pandemics. This may be due to the fact that most drone delivery companies tend to focus on more populated areas with relatively high demand where hundreds of deliveries per week or even per day are required to break even. In contrast, small and dispersed rural populations may not need more than 100 deliveries per month or even per year. And yet these communities are at far greater health risk given the lack of public health services in remote areas.

Surveillance drones

There is not doubt that drones can enhance situational awareness. This explains why many have advocated for the use of drones to help enforce lockdowns, sanitary cordons and curfews during the pandemic. Like broadcasting drones, we have seen mixed results from this application, which may be due, inter alia, to a range of cultural, historical and political factors. The more pressing concern when it comes to this application, however, is data privacy and data protection. These concerns are not limited to personal identifying information (PII); they also include worries around demographically identifiable information (DII), for example. Alas, data privacy and protection issues are rarely addressed by those advocating for drone-based surveillance, particularly drone companies.

Conclusion

The takeaway here is not that drones cannot add value in response to the coronavirus. Rather, the right conclusion is that more critical thinking is needed on the use of drones with respect to the COVID-19 emergency. We should also remember that the current pandemic does not have a monopoly on humanitarian crises. This means we must be prepared to deploy emerging technologies like drones in response to these other disasters even during the pandemic. More importantly, the “we” here must be local experts with the right skills and technologies who can take the lead in responding to needs in their own countries. Foreign-led, top-down, techno-centric interventions often exacerbate the digital divide and are rarely effective or sustainable.

Is that drone really necessary?
Is that drone really necessary?
Image: WeRobotics