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Study says drones are best way to deliver COVID-19 tests

Much of the world is on lockdown, shut in to avoid the human contact that spreads the new coronavirus. Emerging from lockdown will be a gradual process and experts say it’s only possible with thorough testing to identify and quarantine cases as they pop up. A new study says that drones can be a key part of this plan.

The challenge for testing is that it can increase people’s exposure as they congregate at a hospital or clinic. So researchers at Sweden’s Linköping University considered another option: using drones to deliver COVID-19 tests to residents and return the samples to a medical center.

To probe the idea, the research team modeled a drone-delivered test program for a moderate-sized city. They chose Norrköping, a city of about 137,000 located southwest of Stockholm, which has one central hospital. They also based their model on an actual drone built by Matternet.

According to the Daily Mail, the team calculated the most efficient routes to take through the city, and they made some concessions to improve quality of life. Drones would operate 12 hours per day, so as not to wake residents during the night. And they would fly at a leisurely 37 miles per hour.

According to the model, just 36 drones, each carrying 100 COVID-19 tests, could visit everyone in the city every four days. That’s a very high rate of testing. Researchers say that even testing every resident once per month would significantly flatten the curve of coronavirus cases.

Real-life cases

While Europe is theorizing such programs, Africa is making them real. This week, the US-based drone delivery company called Zipline began regular deliveries of Coronavirus tests in Ghana, in West Africa. The Ghana project does not deliver to individual homes, but rather collects COVID-19 tests in rural regions and ships them in batches to central medical facilities in two cities.

Drone deliveries have proved especially appealing in remote regions that have poor infrastructure. There a drone can shave hours or even days off transportation by truck. The Norrköping model is quite different, as it would be filling a dense urban area with a flurry of drone flights. Given the growing backlash to COVID-19 enforcing drones, a testing program might have to work at assuring the public of its good intentions before it can take off.

Photo: Raphael Andres on Unsplash



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Sean Captain is a Bay Area technology, science, and policy journalist. Follow him on Twitter @SeanCaptain.