COVID-19 ISO Insights

COVID-19 Crisis Highlights Drone Capabilities

May 11, 2020

By: Christopher Sirota, CPCU

During the COVID-19 crisis, there have been various reports of drone use to assist in remote regions.

Some Current Capabilities Shine During Crisis

Forbes has reported on several of these drone services, including the following:

  • Starting in 2019, Google's Wing service began operating a pilot program in several locations in the U.S. Since the lockdown commenced, the number of orders that Wing has completed in Virginia has doubled. And despite the struggles many small businesses are facing during the outbreak, a bakery in Virginia that has participated in this so-called "Drone as a Service (DAAS)" program, has actually, per Forbes, seen its sales increase by 50%. How does DAAS work? Residents of the Virginia town can reportedly order goods from Walgreens and FedEx that are then delivered by Wing; the fastest delivery has reportedly been completed in just under three minutes, and the longest distance a drone has traveled is about six miles one way. Per the article, Wing’s success has extended to other locked-down locations in Australia and Finland as well.
  • In North Carolina, a drone service has reportedly partnered with UPS and the North Carolina Department of Transportation "to accelerate lab sample deliveries across the healthcare company’s three hospitals and eight outpatient facilities.”
  • A development company in Philadelphia that was forced by the lockdown to temporarily cease construction operations is reportedly "'[u]sing drones to inspect our projects remotely right now at regular intervals in order to maintain an up-to-date inventory of the condition of our materials as well as document any damage to them [which] will be essential to any potential insurance [claim].'"
  • Also, some police departments in Elizabeth, New Jersey, Savanah, Georgia, China, and Spain have used speakers equipped on drones to remind groups of people gathering in public places about social distancing, as well as wearing masks during the crisis. Additionally, according to Forbes, Connecticut police have attempted to use drones to assist with social distancing. However, unlike those other police departments, they tested a program that could reportedly "monitor people’s temperatures from up to 190’ away through infrared thermography, as well as detect sneezing, coughing, heart and breathing rates, and 'infectious conditions.'" Although data would be anonymized, privacy concerns were reportedly brought to their attention, and the program was abruptly ended.

Drones have provided assistance abroad as well. Time has reported that in Ghana, an American service is transporting COVID-19 tests and returning results via drone, which is "shaving hours and even days off the time it takes to get a COVID-19 test from suspected rural victim to urban laboratory." The article notes that "[i]t’s the first time that autonomous drones have been used to make regular long-range deliveries into densely populated urban areas […]."

FAA Supports Drone Use During Crisis

Now, reportedly for the first time, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has accelerated the issue of a waiver specifically because of the COVID-19 crisis. According to DroneDJ:

an unnamed oil and gas company asked for a waiver to use drones for inspecting its equipment. With workers kept inside due to lockdown orders, robots were the only choice. The FAA approved the waiver within 24 hours.

The article comments that it has been rare for the FAA to issue a waiver that quickly, especially one for Beyond the Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS). In fact, the FAA only provided its first ever BVLOS authorization in 2019, according to Robotics Business Review.

Currently commercial drone operators are subject to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)'s "small UAS rule 14CFR part 107." In 2018, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) released a report pointing out the presence of about 1,800 waivers to Part 107; as of 2020 Q1, the number is now reportedly over 4,000. (The AUVSI provides an interactive webpage which breaks down the waivers by category here).

With respect to BVLOS, the AUVSI report highlights that only 53 waivers have been issued.