‘Pandemic drone’ tests to monitor for Covid-19 infections ends quickly due to privacy concerns
Testing by Westport, Connecticut of a drone to collect biometric readings has been abruptly canceled due to outrage over perceived privacy violations. The data was collected to understand population patterns and to give first responders, public health authorities, and decision-makers quicker reaction times to ongoing public gatherings or other potential health threats.
Following the cancellation, Westport Police Chief Foti Koskinas announced that after careful consideration and collaboration with First Selectman Jim Marpe, “the Westport Police Department has chosen not to participate in the Draganfly drone ‘Flatten the Curve Pilot Program.’”
Only a few days earlier, on the 21st, he had announced: “It is anticipated that [the test flights] will continue to be in effect through the summer months of July and August as we anticipate the need to continue to work to reinforce social distancing measures in order to limit and control the spread of the Covid-19 virus.”
Westport is a town in Fairfield County, the nearest county to New York, which is the state’s hot zone for the SARS Cov-2 pandemic in Connecticut, with over 8,400 confirmed infections, 584 deaths, and 1,972 persons hospitalized as of April 23, 1:30 PM.
“One of the major problems for cities and towns like Westport in managing and responding to a pandemic like the Covid-19 virus is finding out who could be infected and how widespread the disease has spread,” Marpe said, emphasizing that “One way to do this is to look for underlying symptoms. By teaming up with Draganfly and the UniSA team, led by Defence Chair of Sensor Systems Professor Javaan Chahl, we are able to remotely look at valuable lifesaving data and better manage current and future health emergencies.”
In a joint statement on April 21 by the Westport Police Department, Marpe had announced the Police Department had begun testing state-of-the-art new drone technology in a “Flatten the Curve Pilot Program that may help Westport combat the spread of the Coronavirus.” Koskinas and Captain Ryan Paulsson, head of the department’s drone program, partnered with Draganfly, a drone company, “as first responders are looking for effective ways to monitor social distancing, ease the spread of Covid-19 and keep their communities and personnel safe.
The statement notes the difficulty of determining how wide disease has spread and protecting first responders. “According to Police Chief Koskinas, ‘Using drones remains a go-to technology for reaching remote areas with little to no manpower required. Because of this technology, our officers will have the information and quality data they need to make the best decision in any given situation.”
The drone software uses biometric readings to understand population patterns and allow quicker reaction time to on-going events or potential health threats.
“The goal is to provide better health monitoring support for potential at-risk groups, including seniors, as well as for gathering crowds at beaches, train stations, parks and recreation areas, and shopping centers. It will not be used in individual private yards, nor does it employ facial recognition technology,” the official stated.
“Westport and its first-responder network are one of the most progressive public safety advocates in the nation. They are real pioneers when it comes to adopting and integrating new technology to protect its community,” Koskinas said. “This pandemic has opened up a new frontier and urgent need for the use of drones. Draganfly is the first in the U.S. to implement this state-of-the-art technology to capture and analyze data in a way that has been peer-reviewed and clinically researched to save lives.”
Marpe noted the need to guard against a possible resurgence of the virus, saying, “I am proud of how Westport’s first responders are handling Covid-19, and how the Westport Police Department, in particular, is committed to discovering smart solutions for current and future health emergencies.”
For Draganfly, it was the company’s first-ever series of U.S. ‘pandemic drone’ test flights using the drone’s new pandemic drone technology “made possible by the collaboration and integration of technologies developed by Draganfly, Vital Intelligence Inc., a healthcare data services and deep learning company, and the University of South Australia (UniSA),” the company said. “Westport is deploying the technology and data tools to enhance town services, advance public safety, promote the efficient use of taxpayer dollars, engage residents, and encourage growth in the local economy.”
Draganfly said its “pandemic drone would be equipped with a specialized sensor and computer vision systems that can display fever/temperature, heart and respiratory rates, as well as detect people sneezing and coughing in crowds, and wherever groups of people may work or congregate. The technology can accurately detect infectious conditions from a distance of 190 feet as well as to measure social distancing for proactive public safety practices.”
Draganfly‘s pandemic drone software uses biometric readings in its analysis process but does not employ facial recognition technology. “Rather, the software is used to understand patterns within a population to allow users to react quicker to on-going events or new potential health threats. Its deep learning algorithms can quickly detect symptoms such as sneezing and coughing, high blood pressure, and rapid heartbeats to make a diagnosis of disease,” the company explained.
Westport intended to use the drone technology to help protect potential at-risk groups, such as seniors, and crowds gathering at the town and state-owned beaches, train stations, parks and recreation areas, shopping centers and other areas where people tend to congregate.
The Westport Police Department initially deployed its drone program in early 2016 under the guidance of the Department’s Federal Aviation Administration-certified drone pilot, Captain Ryan Paulsson. “Originally used to support its dive team operations to better assist in locating submerged objects or victims, Westport Police Department quickly realized the program’s potential for other missions and soon expanded its use for accident investigation, documentation of scenes, search and rescue, public works projects, and pre-event planning,” the statement said.
Koskinas went on to point out that “The Westport Police Department, along with first responders around the world are looking for effective ways to ease the spread of Covid-19 and keep their communities safe. This technology not only enhances the safety of our officers and the public, but the concept of using drones remains a go-to technology for reaching the most remote areas with little to no manpower needed. It also helps our officers acquire decision quality data they need to make the best choices in any given situation.”
Captain Paulsson added, “We are modeling the future of drone integration in public safety by utilizing Draganfly’s technology as first responders. We are honored to be the first law enforcement deployments in the country of this technology that will shape the future of public safety drone integration in the U.S.”
But, despite the technology’s promising ability to help in “flattening the curve” by identifying individuals with fevers and large gatherings in which there could be one person possibly infected, privacy concerns quickly brought the program to an abrupt halt.
“All of those concerns need to be part of the assessment of whether this technology can help us in the future,” said former Fairfield Police Chief Gary MacNamara. “But doing nothing and not exploring technology is not an option. We have to look at better ways in which we can avoid just shutting down our entire society.”
Thursday, Chief Koskinas announced that after careful consideration and collaboration with First Selectman Jim Marpe, “the Westport Police Department has chosen not to participate in the Draganfly drone “Flatten the Curve Pilot Program.”
In a statement announcing the suspension of the program, Koskinas said, “The department’s recent announcement of its plan to partner and participate in a test of new drone technology has resulted in varied expressions of public concern and reservations. To those who have reached out directly to the police department, to the Selectman’s office, or otherwise made public these questions or concerns, we sincerely thank you for your continued community engagement and seek to assure you that your voices have been heard.”
“In our 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 was perhaps misinterpreted, not well-received, and posed many additional questions,” Marpe said. “We heard and respected your concerns, and are therefore stepping back and re-considering the full impact of the technology and its use in law enforcement protocol.”
Chief Koskinas added, “I am always committed to bringing our community the most innovative solutions to the public safety problems that it faces. Although I see the greater potential of this technology, I will always be responsive and respectful of the concerns of our citizens in every decision that I make.”
He emphasized, however, that “It is a fact that the Covid-19 virus continues to spread through the global community, and therefore poses a serious and credible threat to us all now and in the future. In our steadfast commitment to public service, we remain honored to have been given an opportunity to assist in a pilot program, which could someday prove to be a valuable lifesaving tool. We thank Draganfly for offering the pilot program to Westport and sincerely hope to be included in future innovations once we are convinced the program is appropriate for Westport.”
The joint statement ended by saying, “The Westport Police Department has always made public safety its primary focus while simultaneously respecting the civil liberties of our residents and visitors. We remain steadfast in honoring this commitment.”
Koskinas later told reports, “I’m very sensitive to privacy issues There shouldn’t be a police chief or anybody who’s sitting in my seat with everything that’s going on right now, not looking for a way to do things differently.”
Draganfly’s Chell insists the data its dones capture is done anonymously, explaining, “The system is designed to provide health monitoring data and to be able to give us better data to make more clear decisions.”