Police in Westport, Connecticut, announced this week that they’re testing a so-called “pandemic drone” that can detect when people on the ground have fevers. The new drone platform will also be used to determine when people are closer than six feet to each other. Police will be able to deliver a verbal warning through the drone’s speaker to anyone not practicing social distancing.
The new drone technology was developed by a company called Draganfly Inc., which has been around since the late 1990s, and uses Westport PD’s existing quadcopter drones with Draganfly’s software. Draganfly worked with a deep-learning company called Vital Intelligence Inc. and researchers from the University of South Australia to develop the new tech, according to a press release.
One of the features of the drone platform is being able to tell when people get closer than six feet apart, something that almost looks like Terminator-vision in practice. Social distancing guidelines developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stress that six feet is a safe distance because it’s the theoretical distance that tiny droplets from sneezes or other facial excretions can travel in the air.
Drone operators using Draganfly tech can see citizens with a green circle surrounding them when they’re six feet away from another person. But as soon as they get within six feet of someone else, their circle turns red.
NBC’s local TV affiliate in Connecticut followed police to a local grocery store and watched as social distancing guidelines were apparently violated, according to the drone’s detection software.
“The ‘Flatten the Curve Pilot Program’ and associated technology may prove to be an innovative tool in helping the community practice safe social distancing, while identifying possible coronavirus and other life-threatening symptoms,” Westport PD said in a Facebook post.
The drones can detect everything from heart rate to respiratory abnormalities in people on the ground, according to Draganfly, which also supplies drone technology for the Australian military, according to its website. The drones are equipped with standard 4K cameras, according to Draganfly, and the secret sauce appears to be whatever software they’re employing.
The Westport Police Department stressed that the drones would be used to monitor “at-risk” populations, and won’t be used in “private yards,” but it still looks like something out of a sci-fi dystopia when you watch Draganfly’s own promotional videos.
“The drone software uses biometric readings to understand population patterns and allows quicker reaction time to ongoing events or potential health threats,” Westport Police said on Facebook. “The goal is to provide better health monitoring support for potential at-risk groups, including seniors, as well as for gathering crowds at beaches, train stations, parks and recreation areas, and shopping centers. It will not be used in individual private yards, nor does it employ facial recognition technology.”
Connecticut currently has identified 22,469 cases of covid-19 and 1,544 deaths, according to the latest numbers compiled by Johns Hopkins University’s coronavirus tracker. The U.S. more broadly has over 842,000 cases and at least 46,785 deaths, as of Thursday morning, the highest number in the world.
The police force in Westport believes that using drones not only will keep the public safe, but will allow police officers to stay out of harm’s way. At least 4,435 members of the New York Police Department have contracted covid-19, according to the New York Post, and 30 NYPD employees have died from the disease. There are no reports of any police officers in Connecticut dying from the new coronavirus.
“The Westport Police Department along with first responders around the world are looking for effective ways to ease the spread of COVID-19 and keep their communities safe,” Westport Chief of Police, Foti Koskinas, said in a press release.
“This technology not only enhances the safety of our officers and the public, but the concept of using drones remains a go-to technology for reaching the most remote areas with little to no manpower needed. It also helps our officers acquire decision quality data they need to make the best choices in any given situation.”
Draganfly did not immediately respond to an inquiry from Gizmodo on Thursday morning about how many other police departments in the U.S. may be experimenting with the company’s new drone platform. We’ll update this article if we hear back.