The global spread of the Covid-19 pandemic has forced government officials to relook at how infectious diseases are controlled, with many countries employing a novel, technology-based solutions to help curb the spread of the virus.
Silver Spectrum Solutions has been working on the development of custom drones for specific applications. We have successfully delivered drones to Eskom for power line inspections and are working on new solutions for other sectors like agriculture and security. We have developed practical solutions that can be applied to help fight against the spread of the Coronavirus.
The spread of COVID-19 in South Africa has been shocking and deeply concerning. At the time of writing this blog, there were 1170 confirmed cases which occurred within 25 days. The alarming rate of infections caused the Government to declare a National State of Disaster followed by a 21 day National Lockdown which started on March 27, 2020. This action is unprecedented and President Cyril Ramaphosa has called for a national, cohesive response from all residents in order to “flatten the curve” of infections.
The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted just how unprepared we are for a pandemic of this magnitude. Traditional solutions, which are personnel intensive and difficult to scale, have not been effective in curbing the spread of the virus. This has forced governments and healthcare officials to consider new and innovative ways of addressing this crisis.
HOW CAN DRONES ASSIST IN THIS FIGHT?
Drones are perfectly suited to perform some of the more high-risk jobs in the fight against COVID-19. The World Economic Forum has reported that in China, the original epicentre of the pandemic, drones have been successfully deployed in response to the Coronavirus [1,2]. Some of the use cases are aerial disinfection and sanitisation, fever detection in crowds, surveillance and crowd control; and delivery of medicines or test kits.
The main value of using drones is the aerial vantage it provides for the use cases listed above. In addition, drones limit person to person contact thereby reducing the risk of further infections. The data collected can also be valuable in the tracking, reporting and management of health interventions.
FEVER DETECTION IN CROWDS
Silver Spectrum Solutions uses a thermal (infrared) camera fitted to an enterprise-grade DJI drone. The thermal camera can be set up to detect elevated body temperatures of people in crowds. This solution is immediately ready for use. On detection, we can provide this information to health authorities working in the area.
The Australian government is already considering this type of solution and on March 26, 2020, the company Draganfly announced that it would be providing COVID-19 sensing drones (also known as Pandemic Drones) to the Australian Department of Defence to remotely monitor and detect people with infectious and respiratory conditions to help stop the spread of the Coronavirus in Australia . These drones will be deployed in various hot spots and by using a thermal camera and smart computer vision technology, Draganfly will be able to make a potential diagnosis from a distance.
Silver Spectrum Solutions main areas of competence are computer vision, image processing and analysis. We have the competency to develop similar algorithms to detect further symptoms of the coronavirus such as watery eyes and coughing. We are currently exploring opportunities that utilise image processing for this application, however, we are cognisant of the social and regulatory concerns around privacy, profiling and general intrusion.
DISINFECTION AND SANITISATION
The South African government is extremely concerned about the spread of the virus in densely populated informal settlements. These settlements pose a huge challenge to containing the virus due to the lack of access to basic sanitation and the difficulty in observing social distancing. The Minister of Human Settlements Hon. L.N. Sisulu has identified 29 settlements where the spread of the Coronavirus would be difficult to control or manage should an outbreak occur .
Their primary mitigation measure, currently, is a mass de-densification of the settlement. This may be a huge logistic and safety issue. A further concern is that de-densification may be viewed as forced eviction and may have other socio-political impacts .
Silver Spectrum Solutions can offer an alternate solution. Using overhead spray drones to dispense medically approved sanitisers and disinfectants over the settlement at regular intervals, we can effectively sanitise the area thereby reducing the risk of further infections. This solution can be implemented as a stand-alone solution or can be implemented together with aerial fever detection for a more comprehensive solution.
The World Economic Forum has reported that aerial disinfection has been successfully used in India and China . When compared to hand spraying, aerial disinfection was shown to be approximately 50% more effective and is a viable alternative traditional mitigation measure. The agriculture spray drone shown below is an off-the-shelf solution that can be used for aerial disinfection and sanitisation.
SURVEILLANCE AND CROWD CONTROL
Since the start of the national lockdown, it’s been reported that many people are not adhering to lockdown rules. This poses a huge risk and defeats the purpose of a national lockdown. The SANDF and the SAPS have been deployed to enforce the lockdown; however, due to limited resources, they are unable to be everywhere all the time.
Our drone solutions can be utilised to help law enforcement better direct their resources and efforts to more high-risk areas. By equipping our drone with a public address system, we can play pre-recorded public service messages to inform people of the risks of ignoring lockdown rules and direct them indoors. The benefits of this solution are two-fold. Firstly, it creates awareness and can be used to share up to date information with the public and secondly, can be used to enforce lockdown rules. This technique was successfully implemented in India .
In some cases, it is costly, inefficient or impossible to use a normal helicopter or fixed-wing planes to get good quality images/video of crowd and people movement. Our drones, equipped with cameras, can be used to detect crowds or traffic and assist law enforcement to better manage the situation.
CONTACT-LESS DELIVERY OF MEDICINES AND ESSENTIAL SUPPLIES
As the COVID-19 pandemic escalates worldwide, drones are becoming increasingly useful for the delivery of medicines and essential supplies to remote areas. According to Forbes.com, this solution has already found success in China and West Africa . The advantages of delivery drones are:
• It could speed up delivery by up to 50% when compared to road transportation,
• No human-to-human contact makes it safe for lockdown and social distancing scenarios,
• It is not reliant on road infrastructure so remote areas can be easily accessed.
In South Africa, people living outside of urban areas will have to catch a taxi or other public transport in order to access medical facilities. This can render social distancing rules ineffective. Elderly people also have mobility and access challenges, which is worsened with social distancing and lockdown rules.
Silver Spectrum Solutions has a fleet of drones that are capable of short-distance trips and we are busy with the development of a fixed-wing vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) solution that will be capable of travelling 100’s of kilometres. In addition to our fleet, we have partnerships with other local drone service providers and operators, so a national solution can be provided.
Silver Spectrum Solutions Drone Fleet
Long-range VTOL Aircraft Development
Although the use cases listed above have been proven successful in other countries, there are some issues that will need to be addressed by South African regulators. Multi-rotor drones are good for about 20 to 30 minutes of flying and are limited to a maximum distance of radio line of sight (RLOS) distance of 500 m from the pilot (or an additional 500 m if a spotter is used). Further, the local regulations require special approvals for conducting spraying operations.
In order to deliver these solutions, several regulatory hurdles will need to be addressed in a fairly short space of time. The global spread of COVID-19 has highlighted firstly, just how unprepared governments and medical services are for a pandemic of global proportions, secondly, that technology and innovation can play a vital role where traditional methods prove inefficient and thirdly, that regulators need to be more proactive in their regulatory approach and in writing forward-thinking policies.
In the face of this global crisis, innovation can assist our government to ‘flatten the curve’ and offer viable alternatives to traditional methods of mitigation and control. We are ready to work with the Departments of Health, Human Settlements and Transport, and the Civil Aviation Authority to implement innovative, effective drone-based solutions and help South Africa overcome COVID-19.
REFERENCES Web reference: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/03/three-ways-china-is-using-drones-to-fight-coronavirus/  Web reference: https://enterprise-insights.dji.com/blog/innovating-to-fight-covid-19-four-ways-drones-are-contributing  Web reference: https://www.digitaltrends.com/cool-tech/draganfly-drones-detecting-covid-19/  Web reference: https://www.gov.za/speeches/minister-lindiwe-sisulu-interventions-curb-spread-coronavirus-covid-19-25-mar-2020-0000  Web reference: https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2020-03-27-de-densifying-and-decanting-how-the-government-hopes-to-contain-covid-19-in-informal-settlements/  Web reference: https://telanganatoday.com/karimnagar-to-have-drone-solution-for-covid-19  Web reference: Robots And Drones Are Now Used To Fight COVID-19 – https://www.forbes.com/sites/bernardmarr/2020/03/18/how-robots-and-drones-are-helping-to-fight-coronavirus/#1334fd252a12