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What just happened? The plan to use drones that can detect Covid-19 symptoms while also enforcing social distancing measures in the US has been put on hold. It seems residents of Westport, Connecticut, which was going to launch a pilot program, have objected to the project due to privacy concerns.
Last week, it was reported that drone-maker Draganfly’s drones were being tested in the US. The devices use specialized onboard thermal sensors and a smart computer vision system to monitor people’s temperature, heart and respiratory rates from a distance of 190 feet, potentially helping identify those infected with Covid-19. They can also measure social distancing between individuals, and even detect people sneezing or coughing in crowds.
The drones had already been chosen to help slow the spread of Covid-19 in Australia, and the Westport Police Department (WPD) was trialing them in the US. But residents weren’t happy about being watched by the drones.
As reported by Westport News, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Connecticut raised privacy concerns about the UAVs, adding that public money would be better spend on other measures to fight Covid-19. The plan also resulted in a small number of protestors gathering outside of the local police department.
“We are not hearing a cry for new surveillance technologies,” said David McGuire, executive director of the ACLU of Connecticut. “The urgent need at the moment, according to public health experts, is to ramp up testing capability, suppress transmission through social distancing measures, and support our hospitals as they face an influx of patients.”
The drones don’t use facial recognition technology or collect personalized data on individuals, but it appears an eye in the sky is a bit too dystopian for many locals, even if it is for their own good.
In a Facebook post, First Selectman Marpe of the WPD writes that in the department’s “good faith effort to get ahead of the virus and potential need to manage and safely monitor crowds and social distancing in this environment, our announcement [to trial the drones] was perhaps misinterpreted, not well-received, and posed many additional questions.”
One of the protestors, who’d complained that the drones could “lead people to being unnecessarily harassed,” said: “The decision by the Westport Police Department to scrap their drone program is a victory for the people and civil liberties, especially in a time of overreach.”
WPD Chief Foti Koskinas didn’t appear to rule out future use of the technology in some form, saying it could still become “a valuable lifesaving tool.”
Draganfly said it was working with other communities around the US that are interested in using its drones. Whether it runs into protests in these regions remains to be seen.