The situation in China has taken a slight Orwellian turn in recent weeks. When a highly infectious disease breaks through your cities and villages, how do you enforce order and best hygiene practices without compromising your security personnel? For China, that answers lies with drones.
In recent weeks, the Asian nation has used a bizarre drone strategy to address the outbreak that’s infected 72,438 Chinese citizens and claimed the lives of 1,869 of them. Unwary pedestrians are hounded by overhead drones that use sharp disciplinary speech to get citizens off the streets, or at least to wear facemasks if they aren’t.
“Yes, auntie, this is the drone speaking to you,” a voice through an overhead drone declares to an elderly woman below, as seen in a clip shared by state media. “You shouldn’t walk about without wearing a mask. Yes, you’d better go home and don’t forget to wash your hands. You see, we’ve been telling people to stay at home but you still wander outside. Now a drone is watching you.” The woman is seen scurrying off hurriedly while sneaking back looks at the machine spouting commands at her.
In another clip, we see a drone scold a man working in the snow, repeating twice that “we are in unusual times,” and that he should go back to the comfort of his home. To this, the man laughs, after which he receives a sharp reply, “Don’t laugh. Now, get on your cart and go home immediately. You see, you didn’t even wear a mask. What are you looking at? Go home now!”
While personnel operating the drone speakers try to soften things with compliments and polite words, their authoritarian tone is hard to mask, as some chatter on online forums has attested.
“Playing mahjong outside is banned during the epidemic,” one drone sounds at a group of men playing the tile-based game. “You have been spotted. Stop playing and leave the site as soon as possible.”
Drones serve other purposes too
Dishing out tough love and disciplinary rhetoric is just one of the ways China is using drones today to address the Coronavirus.
According to the South China Morning Post (SCMP), “Over the past few weeks, local governments and agricultural drone owners have been utilizing drones to spray disinfectant” over factories, residential areas, hospitals and waste treatment plants.
Many Chinese drones companies have pitched in to aid with the efforts, such as DJI and MicroMultiCopter (MMC).
Drones like MMC’s are also being used for aerial thermal sensing, where drones equipped with thermal cameras will automatically sense each person through high accuracy infrared which has been widely used in crowded areas to assist in onsite management and evacuation.
According to MMC, drones are also used to aid in traffic management across the country.
“Since 1st Feb, MMC teams have been working with traffic police at many highway points,” the drone maker said. Data regarding things like traffic flow and congestion situation is captured, while providing larger coverage than that possible with fixed cameras. This helps traffic police come up with solutions much faster.
Drones and outbreaks share a brief historyOne has to admire the ingenuity of using drones during such a widespread virus outbreak. In fact, this isn’t the first time these flying machines were used during times of medical crises.
Back in 2014, researchers on the island of Borneo in Southeast Asia used drones to map out areas afflicted by a type of malaria parasite. Just like in China today, the drones were fitted with specialized equipment to help gather all kinds of data. In Borneo, the drones used infrared sensors to identify mosquito breeding grounds.
In Ghana, drones are used with cases of ebola and other diseases.
“At least up to 600 daily drone flights are made to deliver vaccines, blood supplies and life-saving medicines to 2,000 health centres in remote areas around the country,” AFP reported late last year.
China could set a precedent for the usage of drones during international medical situations. While not the first to utilize drones in this way, their deployment is certainly the largest, addressing one of the world’s worst virus outbreaks in recent memory.