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In just a few months, Coronavirus has changed how we greet each other, how we work and how our children are educated. It’s also pushing public health authorities to develop new ways to deliver healthcare.
Over the past few months, the Chinese government has been piloting ways to incorporate drones into their response to Coronavirus. These initial experiments may serve as a model for other countries looking to respond to the current health crisis. Longer term, they can provide lessons for how public and private health systems can incorporate drone technology into their planning to mitigate future pandemics.
Here are three areas where drones have been a key tool in responding to COVID-19:
Aerial spray and disinfection
Drones originally designed to spray pesticides for agricultural applications were adapted in China to spray disinfecting chemicals in some public spaces and on epidemic prevention vehicles traveling between impacted areas. (Coronavirus is mainly transmitted via respiratory droplets and can also spread by touching contaminated surfaces. Disinfectant spray helps reduce these transmission mechanisms.)
“Compared with hand spray, drone spray has many advantages in terms of efficiency, consistency," noted Justin Gong, co-founder of agricultural drone company XAG. Depending on the application, drone spray can be fifty times more efficient than people spraying.
To ensure the safety of aerial disinfection operations, XAG Technology, DJI Agriculture, China Agricultural Machinery Distribution Association, China Agricultural University Research Centre for Medical Equipment and Application Technology and other relevant agencies jointly published a series of operational guidance and technical specifications to communicate with local authorities and make sure that all efforts were conducted in a safe and scientific manner.
Transport of samples
Delivering medical samples by drone can significantly reduce unnecessary human contact throughout the transport cycle. It can also speed feedback for critical tests needed by patients and medical workers.
Testing drone delivery for medical samples began last month, at a time when the virus had already killed 600 people in the country and infected 28,000. Early last February, a drone loaded with medical testing supplies took off from the People's Hospital of Xinchang County, Zhejiang Province and flew to the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention located 3 km away. As a result, a journey that would have taken 20 minutes by ground transport took only 6, cutting delivery time by more than half.
This effort required close coordination with a variety of groups and agencies, including the Hangzhou Municipal Government, its health department (and subset healthcare facilities), drone company Antwork, and the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) to approve routes and ensure proper safety measures were taken. At the peak of the operation, it ran 20 more flights every day.
“At the moment of life and death, the air transport network can significantly confine the flow of people, avoid unnecessary physical contact and prevent secondary transmission,” said Lv Yinxiang, Secretary of the Party Committee of the County People’s Hospital. “Medical samples delivered through air can shrink the delivery time…while saving precious field resources.”
Consumer drone delivery
Drone delivery of consumer items can ensure that people have access to food and other goods - and make it easier for citizens to keep to recommendations limiting human contact.
Consumer delivery was challenging in parts of China even before the virus thanks to difficult landscapes - like Anxin’s series of semi-isolated islands. In that village, routine grocery deliveries typically required three modes of transport. Goods were shipped to a main pier, ferried to each island, and then distributed by foot. When counter-virus measures suspended the ferry service, driving along the peninsula’s rugged and narrow road could take more than 2 hours in a single trip to cover 100 km.
Drone delivery quickly became a feasible alternative. With the support from the local government, e-commerce company JD deployed its drone team. That team quickly conducted ground surveys, designed flight corridors, requested airspace access permission and conducted final flight tests. In just a few days, several drone delivery corridors were put in place replacing hours-long drives with a 2 km flight that could be completed in just 10 minutes.
The coronavirus outbreak in China has led to significant experimentation with many emerging technologies, including drones. While these projects and demonstrations are still in their earliest phases, we can begin to draw some lessons that can be useful to health authorities around the world.
Data needs to be gathered and shared about the efficacy of these applications so health authorities can assess the impact on disease transmission, any cost savings, and service improvements for the overall health system. Currently this data is often considered to be proprietary by companies and sensitive by authorities, but a commitment by authorities to release this information or a trusted neutral party with access to the data could ensure other health systems are able to learn from these experiences.
Drones need to be integrated into planned health responses. As the results from Coronavirus response efforts in China to blood delivery in Rwanda and Ghana to Dengue prevention in Fiji become clearer, we should be able to preplant how drones will be used during disease outbreaks and make appropriate investments rather than relying on ad hoc experimentation.
Coordination between the public and private sector is essential. Drones are subject to strict regulation outside of consumer use and civil aviation authorities need to respond quickly to requests for health applications while preserving the safety of the airspace and those on the ground. Right now, flight requests are being approved on an exceptional basis, but in the future there should be clear regulations put in place that define how to conduct these applications.
The civil aviation authority is working with industry, health officials and security services to put these policies into place. The CAAC unmanned aerial system office leadership stated, “Drones are playing key roles in managing the COVID-19 outbreak... It proves that lessons learnt from real world practices are critical for developing a sound regulatory framework whereby the potential of drone technology can be realized.”
As the world continues to tackle this crisis, these lessons can reshape how we protect and care for people during health emergencies.