A person demonstrates how to interact with a drone using hand gestures. (Dr. Jessica Cauchard)

Pandemic Could Spark ‘Revolution’ in Use of Medical Drones

Unmanned aerial vehicles can be used to deliver medicine, take patients’ vitals – though privacy concerns ground pilot program in Connecticut

The coronavirus pandemic could spark a virtual revolution in the use of drones in the medical sector, with the technology being used for everything from delivering medication in rural areas to taking patients’ vitals and ensuring social distancing in public spaces.

Dr. Jessica Cauchard is a faculty member in industrial engineering and management at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and a pioneer in the nascent field of human-drone interaction. She told The Media Line that the COVID-19 crisis had helped accelerate and widen the applications of drones in a number of fields.

“The technology is ready and we have the ability to do many things that have not yet really been tested with people,” Cauchard said. “We’re seeing a technological shift – almost like a revolution – in how drones are being used.”

Together with Dr. Stav Shapira, a researcher in the Department of Emergency Medicine at the university’s School of Public Health, Cauchard is conducting research on how to best design and implement the technology for populations in Israel that might be less accepting of it, such as the elderly and ultra-Orthodox Jews, among others.

“The whole idea of my research is to think about how people can interact with drones and understand them so that they can sustainably remain in use in human spaces,” Cauchard explained, adding that during a pandemic, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) can prove especially beneficial “to deliver medications or supplies to people who can’t leave their homes, or support those who can’t go outside, such as by delivering groceries.”

While privacy concerns remain an issue, Cauchard believes that “if people can understand that the drone is here to help and that it is not going to cause them any harm, there’s no reason they shouldn’t accept them.”

In Israel and the United States, drones have so far been used mainly for military or police purposes due to heavy airspace restrictions. Interestingly, it is different in sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, medical drones have proven particularly useful when deployed in rural parts of the continent.

Rwanda and Ghana, for instance, have already deployed UAVs to deliver blood, medicine, vaccines and other medical supplies to remote areas. Rwanda further has the distinction of being the first country in the world to pilot blood deliveries by drone, having signed on to a pilot program in 2016.

Cauchard notes, however, that even in places where governments and populations are open to it, medical drone technology remains in its infancy.

Shapira believes that one potential problem is the thorny issue of patient-doctor confidentiality. Still, she maintains that UAVs represent the future of healthcare not only in terms of logistics, but also in terms of telemedicine.

“They can help in so many ways, not only for emergencies, but also for routine medical [scenarios],” Shapira told The Media Line. “You can also put a device on a drone that can take vital measures to get really important information without patients leaving their home.”

During a pandemic such as the one currently sweeping the world, drone deliveries could clearly minimize the exposure of at-risk populations.

One company has already attempted to help local authorities combat the spread of the coronavirus.

Late last month, the police department in Westport, Connecticut, began testing Pandemic Drone, a product of Canadian drone-maker Draganfly. The UAV is equipped with specialized sensors that can reportedly monitor social distancing, detect fevers and coughing, and record other vitals.

Yet the initiative drew protests over privacy concerns and how the data will be used, and the program was quickly scrapped.

Draganfly’s Pandemic Drone, which was briefly tested in Westport, Connecticut. (Courtesy)

Cameron Chell, the CEO of Draganfly, says the company is the world’s longest operating commercial drone manufacturer, working in the field of public safety already for some two decades. In fact, one of its drones, the Draganflyer X4-ES, is the first unmanned aerial helicopter credited with saving a human life. (It is currently housed in the Smithsonian National Aircraft museum’s permanent collection.)

Chell told The Media Line that the original technology used in the Pandemic Drone was developed at the University of South Australia and funded by the Australian Department of Defense.

“The use-case that they were building it for was to hang cameras from the bottom of helicopters and fly them over disaster relief zones so they could get bio-signs of survivors, clearly understanding where they could apply resources on the ground or who needed help the soonest,” Chell said, adding that Draganfly reached out to the university back in January in order to discuss how to use the new technology to flatten the coronavirus curve.

“It’s a combination of a thermal and a 4K RGB [visual] sensor,” Chell explained, noting that it can also detect heart and respiratory rates.

Even though the pilot program in Connecticut has been shelved, he revealed that the company was able to do some “social-distancing testing.” The technology, he said, is set to be tested elsewhere pending finalized agreements.

While he understands why people in Westport were concerned about how the data might be used, he said the device would not have profiled or identified anyone and does not use facial recognition. Rather, it can provide health officials with analytical social-distancing data and inform them whether people are wearing masks.

“Our public policy officials can then start to make determinations because now they can take the health measurements [of a population],” Chell asserted. “You’re starting to get real-time data on population health, and you can see if the public policies that officials are putting in place are actually effective or not, or if they need to be modified.”

Cameron Chell, CEO of UAV-maker Draganfly. (Courtesy)

Meanwhile, Cauchard’s research lab at Ben-Gurion University, called the Magic Lab, is in the early stages of developing drone prototypes for a wide variety of applications, including search and rescue missions as well as firefighter support.

“Medical drones are very promising because [in instances of] social distancing, they can almost be an extension of medical personnel,” she stressed. “They can go to someone’s house, collect medical data and support vulnerable populations…. There are a lot of opportunities that are coming up and we’re just at the very beginning.”

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