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DJI AirWorks: Using drones for public safety during COVID-19

DJI has released a new guide based on the use of drones during the pandemic by the Public Safety sector. The guide is kind of a ‘Best Practices’ for drone use by First Responders and other professionals during the pandemic.

There’s arguably no worse time in memory than this pandemic. But the challenges presented by COVID-19 and its demands that we social distance whenever possibly have created additional use-case scenarios for drones. In fact, many of these use-cases had not even existed prior to the pandemic. Now, they’ve become common-place as First Responders and other civic and medical planners continue to grapple with the new way of doing things. At DJI’s AirWorks, these new roles for drones took center stage during the keynote address on Day 2.

DJI Logo Clean

Headlining the keynote was Romeo Durscher, DJI’s Senior Director of Public Safety Integration. Romeo works closely with First Responders throughout North America, Europe, and beyond. Durscher authored the report along with Wayne Baker, a former fire chief who now works with DJI in the same Public Safety department.

When to use a drone

The guide is called Drones for COVID-19 Public Safety Response. And it opens with a useful flow chart to aid with decision-making. Just because you can use a drone doesn’t mean you should use a drone. Formulated by WeRobotics, it takes you through a brief decision chain. That chain will help you determine whether to deploy a UAS during times of crisis:

WeRobotics DJI decision tree
Created by WeRobotics

Use-case scenarios

Durscher spoke about the many ways drones are being used during this pandemic. He also mentioned DJI’s Disaster Relief Program aimed at ensuring that First Responders can access the drones they need for the task – either via loans directly through DJI, or via other First Responders.

But it’s the downloadable guide that goes into a bit more depth.

DJI public safety COVID-19 guide
The cover of the DJI guide

Sharing information from air via Speaker

This has become a very useful tool, especially with the Mavic 2 Enterprise platform. Being able to broadcast a message has some distinct applications and advantages, as outlined in the guide:

The use of speakers on drones is obvious in search and rescue scenarios, from relaying a search message from the air, to allowing communication with a victim when found. Additional use-cases have been observed in law enforcement, such as providing commands to a suspect barricaded inside a building or landing the drone next to a vehicle or on the hood of a vehicle to allow one-way communications. In COVID-19 responses, drones can be initially used to help observe gathering of individuals from a distance and if need be, flown to the crowd and used to share a message. This method utilizes fewer police officers and allows a more remote approach to help with social distancing as well as increasing responder efficiency.

DJI Guide

The guide points out that speakers are already available through squad cars, via helicopters (or even megaphones). So the advantages of deploying a drone for the purpose of using its speaker should be evaluated. Use a drone only if it provides some advantage over more conventional means.

Proven uses

Speakers have also been used to inform people public spaces are closed and that they should return home. They’ve also been sent on missions to inform a difficult-to-access homeless population in the US about the availability of nearby resources. During the early stages of the pandemic, some videos from China showed drones appearing to admonish people for not wearing masks through loudspeakers. It’s unclear if those videos were genuine, as the audio tends to only reflect the sound of a voice but with no accompanying drone sound.

Live video and AI

Being able to have an eye in the sky provides situational awareness that simply cannot be obtained from the ground. The guide suggests that there may be situations where combining I’ve video streams from drones, as well as other camera assets on the ground, could produce a fairly comprehensive picture of crowds on the ground. This could be useful with COVID-19 testing, food bank lines – and even civil unrest.

What’s more, the guide points out that AI-enabled software, such as the Unleash live platform, can integrate multiple video sources (including thermal), into a single portrait of data. The AI could even keep a running tally of the number of people in a crowd:

Unleash Live DJI AirWorks

Drive-through test sites

On a related front, the guide suggests drones can play – and already have played – significant roles in the planning on day-to-day oversight of drive-through COVID-19 clinics.

Aerial photographs have assisted in the planning of these temporary facilities so as to ensure safety, social distancing, and smooth traffic flow. Drones have also been used to monitor the overall lines in order to calculate wait times. In fact, a loudspeaker-equipped drone has even broadcast wait times to those in the row of cars.

Wait, there’s more

Actually, there is. There’s tons more. The DJI Guide includes exploration of many more use-case scenarios, including:

  • Delivery by drone, including medical supplies
  • Body temperature check
  • Aerial spraying of disinfectant agents (seen widely in China)

After outlining the various use-case scenarios, the report then provides deployment examples. Oregon’s Linn County Sheriff’s Office, for example, created the device in the following pictures:

Linn County Sheriff prescription medication delivery COVID-19
A home-made prescription drug container for drone delivery

It’s a thoughtful read – and one that makes you realize use-case scenarios for drones will continue to evolve in the future. Let’s hope, however, this is the last pandemic for a bit.