Drones and COVID-19:  A Crucible Experience

America’s burgeoning drone industry got its start more than a decade ago and has been growing steadily ever since.  But the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 proved to be a major catalyst to its development.  In March of that year, governments and private companies alike began turning to drones to deliver vaccines, masks and other pandemic related supplies to remote communities in need.  Drones also began flying over public gatherings and beaches to monitor compliance with social distancing guidelines – and if need be, to broadcast warnings to violators to disperse.  Major sports teams also deployed drones to disinfect their stadium bench seating and locker rooms.

The United States was hardly alone.  China employed fleets of UAVs to perform surveillance tasks in Shanghai and other major cities.  Several other countries, including India and Indonesia, which were especially hard-hit by the virus, began deploying drones for wide-ranging purposes – monitoring, governance, food and medical supply delivery, thermal scanning, and sanitation.

In Australia, UAVs were deployed to monitor patients with virus symptoms and to alert first responders to the need for hospitalization. Sensors attached to drones can even monitor a patient’s respiratory rate, heartbeat, body temperature, and other abnormalities.  While the initial pandemic threat has subsided, many of these COVID-related activities continue to this day.

Some of these activities have generated controversy.  When Westport, CT began flying over crowds to warn them to disperse, citizens complained of privacy violations and also criticized the private drone contractors for using the opportunity to market their services.  Some health organizations have also cast doubt on whether drones can accurately monitor a person’s COVID-related symptoms remotely – from as far away as 200 feet, as one company claimed.

Despite these issues, the overall contribution of drones to pandemic prevention and mitigation is undeniable.

Public health wasn’t the only sector that witnessed an increase in drone activity during the pandemic.  Probably the most notable commercial growth occurred in agriculture, which typically occurs in large sparsely-populated areas where the threat of disease transmission is minimized.  Drones actually allow for greater social distancing because the need for field workers and piloted air and road vehicles is reduced.

One drone software company, Drone Deploy, witnessed a 33% increase in drone take-offs among the firm’s U.S. agricultural clients in the first few months of the pandemic.  Sales of software and hardware for specially-equipped agricultural drones have skyrocketed ever since.

Even drone hobbyists seem to have exploited the harsh pandemic control conditions to embrace drone flying more wholeheartedly.  Because recreational flying is largely a solitary pursuit, enjoyed in remote scenic locales,  private drone purchasers could pursue their newfound hobby without fear of violating social distancing guidelines.

Sales of smaller recreational drones boomed during the pandemic, outpacing sales in most commercial niches.

Some drone activities did fall off during the pandemic, but the overall balance sheet was positive.  In a study by the German firm Drone Industry Insights, 52% of respondents said COVID-19 affected their drone business for the better compared to just 15% who said it affected their business for the worse.  A third of respondents felt that the pandemic exerted a negligible business impact.

With new COVID outbreak threats looming on the horizon, drones may well come to play an expanded support role yet again.  Thanks to this earlier crucible experience, links between drone companies and hospitals and clinics are stronger than ever.  But experts say that there is a continuing need to develop specific protocols to govern drone use in discrete applications – from aerial surveillance of potentially infected populations to improved techniques for remotely delivering  medical supplies.

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