We recently profiled Canadian drone maker Draganfly and how it quickly spun up its “pandemic drone.” In short, the company is running pilots in the U.S. to offer social distancing and health monitoring services using machine vision and AI tech licensed from the University of Southern Australia. We spoke with Draganfly CEO Cameron Chell both before and after the first pilot, in Westport, Connecticut, ended abruptly.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced the public and private sectors to consider drones for everything from tracking the spread of COVID-19 to gauging when to lift restrictions. Long after this epidemic is over, drones could play a critical role not just for delivery, but also in detecting and tracking similar outbreaks, safeguarding both public health and business operations. Draganfly’s original timeline was to test at other sites once phase two in Westport was complete — but phase two never happened. Chell had a lot to say before and after Westport made its final decision. Below are a few excerpts from our interviews at the respective times.

Before Westport pulled out

VentureBeat: Have you seen any indication that monitoring crowds for their temperature and whether they’re coughing and sneezing can actually be useful, or is it too early in the tests to determine?

Chell: I think it’s a bit early. From a public safety standpoint, I don’t know that it will be all that useful. I don’t think this is going to be like a routine thing where you see drones flying in the sky doing health measurements. From a public safety perspective, it’s a bit more like, the CDC or World Health say “Hey, we got an issue happening here, and we need to amp up our vigilance. We see some hotspots emerging, here’s what’s happening.” And then in that case, I think local authorities can take a proactive approach and start doing some sampling. And they do it while they’re flying drone missions for other things.

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However, on the industrial side, for workplace safety, I absolutely see this type of technology being implemented. Because workplaces want to know: What’s the health of their workforce, and do they need to take steps in order to protect them? And certainly on the industrial side from consumer safety, a theme park or an airline, consumers are going to want to know what are the health measurements. In those types of scenarios where you’ve got industry making decisions based on bottom-line type of metrics, I think you’ll see this get implemented very, very quickly.

VentureBeat: Have other towns shown interest?

Chell: The demand to test the technology has been insatiable. We need a pragmatic approach to help manage our resources. But also to take the learnings and continue to grow so that if there’s a resurgence in the current pandemic, or if there’s a new epidemic or something that starts to emerge, this type of tool can be implemented, and implemented on a scale because there’s been proper policy and procedure that’s been thought through.

VentureBeat: Was this “insatiable demand” simply from law enforcement and police departments across the country?

Chell: That’s certainly a portion of it, police and law enforcement are certainly an important part of that. But no, it’s also come from the health care industry. For medical facilities, it can help triage incoming patients during a surge — it can measure employee health coming in as a facility for the sake of the employees, but also for the sake of patients. We’ve had significant commercial interest from the airline industry, the tourism industry. Things like theme parks, cruise lines.

VentureBeat: What are those industries interested in?

Chell: Their position is a bit more around “What are we going to do to protect our consumers and help give them some assurance to attract them back to our business?” We see this notion of there being health measurement reports available, kind of similar to how you would see weather reports. Do I want to take my family to Disneyland this weekend? Do I want to travel on this particular airline to this particular location, based on the health measurement that’s happening out there? Those are the types of things that are really being actively talked about in industry. In a medical profession, it’s a whole bunch more about employee safety and patient safety. In the public safety law enforcement spaces, it’s all about protecting the public and how do we how do we address it if we have to practice social distancing again or if we can release social distancing. And do we have the data if it’s working or not working.

VentureBeat: Do you think this technology will be used more for enforcing social distancing and seeing if it’s actually working, or more for making a determination on whether to open up a city back up?

Chell: Yeah, I think both. I think in those times of transition or concern, that’s when you’ll see the technology being used more. If there is a spike in another part of the world or if hospitals are seeing higher indications of flu in a particular season, or something like that, then you may see this type of technology being used.

We will get through this whole pandemic scenario. And then next year we get into flu season and we see a spike in flu rates that’s maybe 3% or 4% higher than a normal typical year. And panic sets in. And we start implementing social distancing. And we start contemplating shutting businesses down. Mark my words, that will happen next year. We don’t have a way to say, “OK, let’s take some real data” other than how many people are going to hospital, how many people think they’re sick. So I think this type of data collected at ports of entry, this type of data collected in municipalities that might be in riskier zones or might see these types of spikes — that’s when you’ll see the technology being used again.

As we come out of this and we start to open up, there’s a rush to try to implement this technology now so that we can justify decisions around should we open up, shouldn’t we open up, can we do better than guesswork.

So in terms of public safety, I see it as a bit more circumstantial as opposed to pervasive, at least in the short term. I could envision all of this data is collected by industry, that I think will be put into place. Once that’s pervasive enough, over the globe over the next couple of years, that data being anonymized and collected so that we effectively have an early warning system. So if we see a whole bunch of this anonymized data showing that Southern California has a higher incidence of a potential infectious disease that’s happening over the course of this last weekend, I think it would give us faster data than we’re collecting right now. And I think that’s a few years out.

After Westport pulled out

VentureBeat: Why should governments invest in drones versus, say, smart thermometers? Yes, you run a drone company, but I’m curious about your thoughts on those two, or in general other technologies that might not be seen as potentially problematic with regards to privacy.

Chell: Whether it’s a drone or a camera or whenever the measuring instrument is, each measuring instrument has potentially the same privacy issues. If you’re measuring population health on a broader basis, that’s why it’s anonymized. If you’re measuring with a smart thermometer, you need permission from the person to do it. If you’re measuring on an individual basis, a worker coming into a workplace and they stand in front of a kiosk and they’re using our technology in front of a camera, that employee has given permission. However you measure, whatever technology is all subject to the same policy, operational requirements, and regulatory requirements.

VentureBeat: What happened in Westport?

Chell: On the public side, the community itself had a bit of an outcry. They were worried about Big Brother. And, fair enough. The software doesn’t identify people in a public safety environment, but that’s fine. So there’s some pushback, and that’s just going to take some time from a policy perspective in that specific jurisdiction. On the social distancing aspect of it, we have been, quite frankly, inundated with requests from other jurisdictions that want to move forward with pilots or at least understand the pilot. We’ve had a great opportunity to have discussions with them about — their first question is, does this invade privacy, how does it work, and once they’ve done that due diligence, as Westport did, they clearly understand that it doesn’t.

VentureBeat: Why do you think there is still demand given the first pilot ended so quickly?

Chell: They’re interested to move forward with pilots because the underlying issue here is there is greater liability for public officials. As they authorize their towns to reopen, if the town gets sick again and they haven’t taken proactive steps [such as measuring] what social distancing was happening, or where hotspots emerged, that is their bigger issue in terms of liability.

VentureBeat: So you’re arguing that Westport may have had a privacy outcry, but they’ve still got a problem on their hands?

Chell: I would suggest they and every other jurisdiction that we’ve talked to understand clearly that the bigger issue is the liability if they don’t do something. We talked with dozens and dozens of more jurisdictions since then. A few of which we’re going to move forward with on pilots to look at, in particular, and most importantly social distancing, and then secondary on the health measurement platform. That’s on the public side.

On the private side, it’s even more prolific. There probably isn’t — I’m sure there is, but it doesn’t feel like it to us anyway — an airport or a convention center or casino operator or a hospitality group or a theme park that hasn’t had some level of inquiry, or an IT services group or security services group. We’re all worried and concerned about how do we reopen? What’s the world look like post COVID-19? How do I track people back to my theme park and what are my liabilities now that they’re in my theme park, and what data do I have to report? FAA and Transport Canada are telling airports, “You have to have the best practices policy now for social distancing. Because there’s going to be times when we’re going to call for social distancing, and then there’s going to be times where you can relax a little bit, but we need records of how you’re doing it, we need to see proof of distribution of people.” So they’re looking at the system that we’ve got to measure, social distancing and health measurement, as proof of best practice.

VentureBeat: Going forward, do you think the public sector is only going to be interested in social distancing, while the private sector will be interested in health monitoring?

Chell: I think in general, out of the gate, that’s very likely the case, yes. I think there will need to be some more policy and operationalization of the health measuring data for public safety to effectively know how to use it. That said, the people that we have talked to, they really want the [anonymized health monitoring] data. They are not interested in picking somebody out and seeing a video feed of each person, what their health condition is. But they do want the data because it is important to understand how it meshes with social distancing, and how you reopen or how you shut down economies. On an anonymized basis, I do think that we’ll see public safety using this data.

On the private side, like for workplace safety, I’ll give you an example. Las Vegas, they’re concerned about attracting people back. But they are also very concerned about employees that are coming in, and if those employees are the source of the hotspot or the infection, then what’s the liability they face? When an employee swipes a card to get into a building, they have terms and services that they have to agree to. They have to conduct themselves a certain way, they wear a uniform, whatever it is. We see this now at Amazon and a number of different places, where they need to ensure that those people coming into the facility aren’t coming in with an infection or respiratory conditions. So to the extent that you’ve got a large convention crowd coming in, you may have that same type of liability consideration as well. So in those cases, I can see video feeds being used. And I think they need to be used.

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