It happened in China, and now it could happen in the U.S: drones being used in the wake of the coronavirus lockdown.
Drones used in China to police people’s behaviors around coronavirus were somewhat controversial last month amongst American audiences. But as coronavirus spreads, and most Americans begin to take coronavirus more seriously, China’s ideas for employing drones to shape public health behavior is starting to make its way into the U.S.
The Chula Vista Police Department plans to use drones equipped with loudspeakers to help communicate information related to the coronavirus, as first reported by the Financial Times.
“We have not traditionally mounted speakers to our drones, but … if we need to cover a large area to get an announcement out, or if there were a crowd somewhere that we needed to disperse — we could do it without getting police officers involved,” Chula Vista Police Captain Vern Sallee said in the article. “The outbreak has changed my view of expanding the [program] as rapidly as I can.”
Sallee suggested that the loudspeaker equipped drones could be especially helpful in disseminating information to people who don’t otherwise have access to reliable news, such as people living in homeless encampments.
“Talking drones” in China were met with mixed emotions from the public — though those drones served a slightly different use case: public shaming.
A video shared on Twitter from the Global Times shows a drone flying over rural parts in China, “talking” to people who are unnecessarily outside or not wearing a face mask. Many people have interpreted the drone as “shaming.”
In one clip, a policewoman yelling through the drone’s says, “Hey, handsome guy speaking on your mobile, where is your mask?”
In another clip, the drone told one person, “yes Auntie, this drone is speaking to you,” according to a translation by China’s state-owned Global Times. “You shouldn’t walk about without wearing a mask. You’d better go home, and don’t forget to wash your hands,” prompting concerns that surveillance drones are taking it too far.
As far as San Diego’s police drones, they aren’t expected to be used for public shaming, but rather spreading information about the coronavirus lockdown.
“The Chula Vista Police Department is not proactively enforcing the Governor’s stay at home order at this time,” according to a press release. “Rather, CVPD staff on regular patrol have been asked to take note of large gatherings (more than 10), businesses that should not be open or people using the city’s parks, which are closed for safety. Staff have been directed to educate the public and ask for voluntary compliance with the Governor’s order to stay at home.”
And, they said drones could help them with the task of educating people.
“Staff are considering how drones may improve communication with the public under certain limited circumstances,” according to a press release. “Specifically, the department is considering one strategy to use drone mounted speakers to communicate and reach vulnerable populations in inaccessible areas of the city, like large urban canyons with homeless encampments.”
A police spokesperson added that their drones will not be used for random patrol, to follow or surveil residents going about their daily routines, or other invasive tactics “which would hinder the freedoms we all enjoy in our community.”
The police department of Chula Vista, which is the second largest city in the San Diego metropolitan area purchased two DJI drones reportedly worth $11,000 each. Additionally, they plan to also add night vision cameras to the flying vehicles, according to the Financial Times report.
The Chula Vista Police Department is no stranger to drones. Their forray into drones began well before December 2015, when the Chula Vista Police Department formed the Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) Committee, which met dozens of times to study best practices, policies, and procedures around drone use in law enforcement.
They actually started launching drones on October 22, 2018 from the rooftop of the police department headquarters to 911 calls and other emergency incidents like fires, traffic accidents, and reports of dangerous subjects.
In May 2019, Chula Vista Police received FAA authorization to fly Beyond Visual Line of Sight (up to 3 miles in any direction from the launch site).
In August 2019, the department bought two new DJI Matrice 210 V2 drones, which have been popular for unique enterprise use cases like the coronavirus-related one above, because they can carry a number of compatible payloads. The Chula Vista police drone fleet also includes lower-cost drones including the DJI Mavic Pro and DJI Phantom 4.