On the last day of 2019, Chinese authorities reported several cases of some “unusual pneumonia” in the city of Wuhan because of some unknown virus. The novel coronavirus (Covid-19) hit the entire world calling governments for immediate and very strict measures to control the spread of the pandemic. One of the means of coping with the strict social distancing restrictions and the need to carry out critical services was the use of unmanned vehicles.
As of today, there are more than 2.1 million cases and more than 147,000 deaths worldwide. Here is how some countries that were hit by the pandemic have deployed unmanned vehicles to face the coronavirus:
China was the first world in the country to have to deal with the challenge of containing the spread of the novel virus using robotic tools. As President Xi Jinping called on the country's tech sector to help battle the epidemic, China used drone technology for disinfection, delivery of medical samples, delivery of goods, measuring temperatures, and making public announcements. Many companies in China rose to the occasion mobilising their autonomous delivery robot technology. The Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, claimed that its new AI-powered diagnosis system can identify coronavirus infections with 96% accuracy.
The epicentre of the virus in Europe allowed using the drones as an additional support for police units to enforce the lockdown. The Italian Civil Aviation Authority (ENAC) confirmed their approval of using drones with some restrictions like using near civilian airports, and the 25 kilogram weight of drones that can be used. Italy's first lockdown started on 21 February, at that time it was limited to provinces only to extend nationwide on 9 March. Italian police is using drones with thermal sensors to detect people with high temperature; these sensors generate data and send it to the drone operator and raises alarm if the detected person is suspected of having the virus.
Three German States, of North Rhine-Westphalia, Hesse and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, have deployed drones to monitory social distancing and report violations to the police. Apparently, barbecue parties were one of the targets to be detected by those drones along with body temperatures of course. However, privacy of citizens is still protected as the cameras of those drones are not used to identify individuals nor to store them, said a spokesman for the Düsseldorf police.
However, the use of technology raised civil liberty concerns. "We have to be sensitive about it. Drones are a new resource and could create the impression for many citizens that we are on our way to a surveillance state," says Jörg Radek, the deputy chairman of the GdP union, adding "We must make sure that we don't lose sight of what is proportionate even during this period." Therefore, rules were set for the use of surveillance with drones allowing them to carry out very specific tasks
The North-African country turned to robots in its combat against the virus. The Interior Ministry has deployed robots known as PGuard robots, they are manufactured by local company ENOVA and can be operated remotely. Those robots are equipped with infrared cameras, which cover the robots surroundings, as well as a thermal camera and a sound and light alarm system. The robot’s Tunisian creator Anis Sahbani said the machine was first produced in 2015 to carry out security patrols. It also operates autonomously through artificial intelligence. If someone is stopped by these robots, the person must show their ID to the robot's camera, so officers controlling it can check them.
Moving to the west, using unmanned technology was not only on the side of the government but also by startups. In Morocco, Farasha Systems, a startup specialised in operating drones in several applications, launched an innovative disinfection campaign that uses drones, as part of the national solidarity effort in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. This solution allows the disinfection of large public spaces in record times.
"This is the time to go for mass procurement and leverage the entire drone production capability of the country. It will take us two-three weeks to start delivering," says Ankit Mehta, co-chair of a FICCI committee on drones and the CEO of ideaForge, a drone manufacturing company.
Indian military has begun using drones and guns shooting ultraviolet light to help stop the spread of the virus. The country's military Electronics and Mechanical Engineering (EME) Corps, an arms and service branch of the Army responsible for the design, development, trial, inspection and refit of weapon systems and other equipment, developed a quadcopter fitted with up to five liters (1.3 gallons) of disinfectants that can sanitise an area the size of a football field in less than five minutes. Along with this, an EME workshop in the capital Delhi built devices that emit ultraviolet light that kills any pathogens it hits in seconds.
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