By Shriya Roy
There was a time when unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology was looked at as sort of a luxury. But not any more, as drone delivery and UAV technology have become important tools in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, helping create more resilient supply chains and socially-distanced delivery services.
The crisis that the world is facing has made people recognise the utility of drones even with their potential risks. Not surprisingly, many startups and individuals have stepped up to the growing need for drones in the market, and are coming up with a wide array of innovative drone solutions.
In India, too, several startups are working in the field to aid the fight against the pandemic. Mumbai-based company ideaForge, the largest drone manufacturer in the country, is engaged in the development of unmanned aerial systems, helping the police monitor social distancing and security surveillance using its drones. Currently, the company has deployed its drones in 10 states for surveillance and crowd monitoring purposes.
ideaForge was founded in 2007 by IIT-Mumbai alumni Ankit Mehta along with three friends. Their systems are currently being used by Indian defence establishments, homeland security and other government organisations for intelligence and surveillance projects. “The pivot to making unmanned systems has its origins in the work we did at IIT-Bombay as undergrads,” says Mehta, CEO and co-founder, ideaForge. “We independently came up with the concept of a quad-rotor and built the first prototype in 2004. The Mumbai attacks proved to be a turning point for us. Following it, we decided that drone technology will be used for defence purposes,” he adds. Other startups like AerialPhoto also seek to acquire and create the most prominent aerial imagery to give a 360-degree view of what’s happening below.
Not just India, other countries, too, are stepping up their UAV game. In Wuhan, which was the epicenter of the pandemic, drones were used to deliver medical supplies to hospitals. The UAV technology not only speeds up delivery of essential medical supplies and samples, but also reduces the risk of exposure to medical staff, marking a major difference in efforts to combat the disease. In China, companies like TerraDrones and Antwork made use of drones to transport medical samples from Xinchang Hospital to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Zhejiang.
Drones are not only being used for ease in supplying essentials, but also in surveillance, broadcast, disinfectant spraying and temperature checks, among others. In the US, Draganfly, the leading manufacturer of commercial unmanned aerial vehicles, released a series of ‘pandemic drone’ test flights in areas that were considered Covid-19 hotspots to monitor social distancing and detect symptoms presented by the virus in an effort to keep the community safe. Draganfly’s pandemic drone technology is equipped with a specialised sensor and computer vision systems that can display fever and temperature, heart and respiratory rates, as well as detect when people sneeze and cough in crowded places. The technology can accurately detect infectious conditions from a distance of about 190 feet. Apart from that, a collaboration between the United Postal Service (UPS) and drone company Matternet became the first approved drone prescription delivery service in the United States post the pandemic.
In countries like China and some parts of Europe, drones are being used to broadcast messages and information about lockdown measures, especially in rural areas that lack communication channels for health information. Drones equipped with loudspeakers are being used to make public announcements about staying indoors, taking necessary precautions and wearing masks when stepping outside.
To disinfect public spaces and prevent the spread of Covid-19, health authorities are deploying agriculture spray drones to carry out tasks like spraying disinfectant in potentially affected areas. These spraying drones can cover much more ground in less time and 50 times faster than traditional methods.
According to DJI, the world’s largest maker of drones, a spraying UAV can carry around 16 litres of disinfectant and cover 100,000 sq meter area in an hour.
While it is fair to say that the pandemic has sped up drone manufacturing across the world, it is still to be seen how much the industry can capitalise on the need and demand.