Coronavirus detection envisioned with airborne drones

Drone maker Draganfly is talking to a country outside of China to use its Commander model equipped with various sensors to detect symptoms of coronavirus in crowds. (Draganfly)

As coronavirus ravages China, health officials in other countries are weighing use of airborne drones equipped with special sensors to monitor crowds for signs of fever and watery eyes, 

“It’s definitely a new frontier for drones,” said Cameron Chell, the CEO of drone maker Draganfly, in an interview with FierceElectronics.

Draganfly has some ongoing discussions with a country he would not name to design, produce and supply up to six unmanned flying drones equipped with a combination of specialized sensors possibly including infrared sensors and facial recognition technology to monitor the presence of symptoms related to coronavirus, he said. 

Creating the drones with the range of needed sensors for the crowd monitoring is “very doable,” he said, but it will take up to six weeks to know whether government officials will move ahead. 

There are bound to be considerations about safety and effectiveness, but also about privacy, Chell admitted. “If the public is aware the drones might be used, they wouldn’t necessarily be scared,” he said. “It is intrusive and there are privacy and profiling concerns, so there’s a huge regulatory piece to explore. Over time people would become familiar with the technology.”

He noted that handheld sensors are already used at airports and ports to detect a person’s temperature and other virus recognition features. But airborne infrared sensors can be used to read a person’s facial temperature at a distance of 100 yards or even more, for example, meaning the drones wouldn’t have to fly all that close to a crowd. Facial recognition software would be used to sort out individuals in a crowd.

Draganfly is considering using a its Commander drone with four rotors for crowd monitoring. The device weighs about four pounds and measures about 18 x 18 x 6 inches.

Twenty-year-old Draganfly invented the first quad rotor drone in 2003 and holds more than two dozen patents for technologies such as foldable wings, propellers that can be removed and battery management.

In addition to the virus detection concept, Draganfly has pursued other unusual drone uses. On Feb. 5, Draganfly announced it had created custom payloads to support agricultural research for the University of Saskatchewan. 

Sensors on drones can be used by the university to detect the presence of flies on cows at pasture, an indication of methane, bacteria and other disease, Chell said. In another application, an environmental reclamation company working with Draganfly is using drones with hyper spectral analysis sensors to detect healthy algae in ponds, which speeds up the time to conduct inspections when compared to manned field tests of pond water quality.

The drones that Draganfly sells and customizes can cost in the $10,000 range, well above the price of a consumer model for $600. They are ruggedized and can be equipped with wireless transmitters and a range of sensors that Include LiDAR, radar, sonar, hyperspectral, infrared and cameras of all types.

The primary commercial value of using drones with sensors is to collect an array of data for analysis, Chell said. "Nobody really cares deeply about the actual drone, compared to the data... so our design, engineering, software and sensor integration is all about capturing and integrating data.  The more unique the data the better," he added.

Revenues for Draganfly were  between $2 million to 3 million in 2019 and are expected to possibly reach $7 million to $9 million in 2020.  The company went public last year and traded for $0.55 at mid-day Friday.(OTCBB-DFLY)

The company operates with just 24 employees, but expects to grow with more commercial accounts. Thus far, about 70% of its revenues have come from public safety and military contracts, Chell said.

With a U.S. government agency ban last year on flying Chinese-made drones due to security concerns, Draganfly expects more business in coming months. About 80% of the drones used in Canada and the U.S. were made in China and need to be replaced by drones made elsewhere due to the government ban. U.S. government agencies believe Chinese spy agencies can use back doors to read data on some Chinese-made servers and other devices.

Draganfly hopes to capitalize on its ability to protect the data collected by its drones. “Companies are looking at data security integrity,” Chell said. Companies will know that Draganfly’s hardware is North American and that the software development is all in-house and can be audited. 

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