In these circumstances where man is both the victim and the main transportation mean of a global and deadly virus, the question of greater use of machines (drones and robots) to manage the situation arises more acutely. The social, economic and technological developments that this unprecedented and major crisis will bring about are not yet written, but it seems reasonable to predict that robotization will increase sharply as a result of the Coronavirus. Indeed, first feedbacks, particularly in China, show that the fight against the virus has been largely based on technological solutions, and that most of these solutions are being adopted worldwide.
Robots and drones provide in this situation valuable help to humans. These machines allow us to carry out indispensable and life-saving tasks that we have abandoned due to their repetitive and dangerous nature and the need for social distancing.
Robotization technologies are already operational for simple uses.
The technologies related to the design of robots and UAVs have reached a sufficient level of maturity for these systems to be produced and used industrially. Advances in on-board intelligence and artificial intelligence make it possible to manufacture reliable systems whose navigation is virtually autonomous when their evolutionary environment and missions are simple.
Mobile robots can now carry out most of the internal operations of many warehouses and logistics platforms. They have considerably lightened the tasks initially dedicated to human operators by generating significant gains in quality, productivity and safety. The prospects of seeing these robots working in our immediate environment (particularly for transporting food in urban areas between purchasing sites and homes) are already being tested in several cities around the world.
The professional use of UAVs has become a daily routine thanks to their mobility, information gathering and even logistical transport capabilities. Thus, many inspection, mapping or surveillance operations are systematically entrusted to UAVs, which are becoming increasingly automated. In simple air-land environments (fenced sites where population density is low and controlled), the use of highly automated UAVs is revolutionising surveillance activities. In cities, many police forces are already supporting their actions with UAVs.
In these new operations, the human remains fully responsible for the safety and the outcome of the mission, but he is not only increased in his capabilities, but also moved from a position “in the loop” to one “on the loop”, with supervisory tasks replacing executive tasks.
Skeyetech autonomous UAV on a surveillance mission on a sensitive site (Source: Azur Drones)
The Coronavirus crisis is tipping the operational vision towards a very increased use of UAVs and robots.
The immediate operational requirements of the Covid-19 crisis can be summarized as follows: on the one hand, it is necessary to be able to detect abnormal situations and on the other hand to act in response to these situations, while keeping interactions between human beings to a minimum and carrying out basic tasks (surveillance, disinfection, etc.).
Drone used by French Police forces during the Covid-19 episode of March 2020 (Source: AFP)
By definition, drones and robots are not sensitive to the virus (although they can still carry it). They are de facto involved in creating a social distance between their operators and other human beings. As part of the sanitary containment measures that have been decided in many countries, UAVs are used to detect unauthorised gatherings of people or to remotely measure temperatures. The mobility and flexible use of these UAVs makes the mission of law enforcement agencies simpler, while avoiding close contact with the population. In view of the volume of work to be accomplished and the repetition of tasks, this new aerial tool is a popular choice for security forces.
Since some of these UAVs have been equipped with payloads adapted to the situation (thermal camera to measure body temperatures at a distance of a few meters, loudspeaker to broadcast messages to the population…), they have become versatile tools for managing this health crisis.
As far as logistics is concerned, during the Coronavirus crisis, we observed that the mere fact of going out to buy food contributed to the worsening of the sanitary situation. Thus we have seen an explosion in the number of home delivery services which have the advantage of limiting situations of human proximity, and it seems that the “Drive” solution was the only one that could be used in totally confined areas in China. Even if it is not legally possible today to envisage fully automated deliveries by drones or robots, the transport of high value-added products (medical samples, organs, etc.) has already begun on an experimental basis in several countries.
Finally, from a purely sanitary point of view, the use of drones and robots to spread disinfectant products has already been widely tested in China, and seems promising for the future due to the ungrateful and repetitive nature of this activity.
As we can see, the technological and operational bases for the increased use of drones and robots are in place, and the “Coronavirus effect” will be a very important accelerator of these developments.
With Coronavirus, the regulatory barriers for UAVs can be lowered considerably, and they are lowered today!
At the regulatory level, the current texts describe the acceptable conditions of use of UAVs in view of the foreseeable risks of this use. These are therefore situations where the risk of collision with a person on the ground, or another aircraft, is considered acceptable because it is very low. Thus, it is not surprising that the use of UAVs in urban areas is, because of the high population density, limited to flights within Visual Line Of Sight. Similarly, UAV flights in controlled airspace (near airports) are strictly controlled by the authorities managing these airspace.
But what about these rules when the population density in the streets becomes epsilonistic, and most planes are grounded? The security forces of many countries have not hesitated, in view of the stakes involved in the fight against the virus, and after discussions with their civil aviation authorities, to extend the perimeter of their operations because risk analysis has evolved considerably since the introduction of containment.
Drone above the deserted Promenade des Anglais, in Nice, during the Covid-19 episode of March 2020 (Source: AFP)
Societal acceptance of these new tools remains heterogeneous according to age, country and culture.
There remains one fundamental point on which discussions are just beginning: how do we, as citizens, accept the arrival of these machines in our daily lives in this particular situation? The answer is not obvious because it depends both on our interest in new technologies and our sensitivity to the notion of privacy. It has to be said that the acceptance of drones and robots has been little discussed in China, and will be much more discussed in Europe. The European Commission has insisted on the fact that the implementation of the future European regulation on UAVs is based on the awareness of the benefits of these technologies and guarantees that they comply with the requirements related to the processing of personal data. It therefore seems essential that the experiments that are currently being carried out with UAVs and robots within populations be accompanied by educational explanations to highlight the added value of these machines and to reassure people about the ethics of their use.
In view of the major impact of this crisis, it is highly probable that the trends mentioned above will be confirmed in the aftermath of the crisis. The role of the machine in reinforcing and protecting human beings in the face of health and security threats should be strengthened because the technological, economic and political conditions for this reinforcement are already in place.
Author : Stéphane Morelli
Compliance Officer & Public Affairs at Azur Drones