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TECHNOLOGY | 05.19.2020

Drones fighting the pandemic, a tool as effective as it is controversial

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Technology is a key tool for dealing with any problem, and few are worse than a pandemic, so it is no wonder that drone use has soared in recent months, since drones provide undoubted advantages in situations of social confinement and distancing.

Many countries have begun to use these flying devices to complete all kinds of tasks, from transporting medicine to sending virus testing kits, in addition to monitoring in order to comply with the security measures that various governments have decided to implement.

However, their use is not without controversy, as some of their uses may constitute an attack or infringement on the fundamental right to privacy that all should have.

Benefits of drone use

The uses mentioned above can be grouped into four prominent action fronts, though they are all related.

Patient health monitoring

Since it cannot be done another way, the use of drones to analyze people’s state of health is the most significant, since they are not only able to perform temperature checks, but are also able to interpret any possible symptoms.

In this sense, projects such as Vital Intelligence are able to take a person’s temperature, heart rate and respiratory rate remotely. This eliminates the risk for health workers when they have to perform this task.

Therefore, this type of project not only facilitates caring for patients who live in sparsely populated, difficult-to-reach areas or those with fewer medical resources, but it is also very useful for detecting potential patients in urban areas where a lot of people tend to gather.

In this respect, technology continues to evolve and these drones have smart sensors that can determine actions such as coughing or sneezing. And this is just the beginning, as the advances being made in Artificial Intelligence could lead to detecting emotions, although this area is a work in progress and one where all ethical and legal considerations must be taken into account.

Shipping medication

The second main use of drones is transporting medication. In this case, they are also the perfect partners for bringing COVID-19 medicine and tests to areas where the risk of infection is very high or, as mentioned above, to places that are difficult to access.

The aim is simply to eliminate the possibility of infection by health workers, as their daily work and exposure are already critical enough. This practice has been used in China with the work conducted at Xinchang Hospital, which was connected to the Zhejiang Center for Disease Control and Prevention through these devices, thereby facilitating the transportation of medicine and saving time, since the journey by air between the two points was cut by almost six.

Shipping products by drone is nothing new, since large e-commerce companies were already using them in some areas. In this case, as we will see later, legal regulations still have a lot to say.

Disinfection

The third main use of drones involves disinfecting large areas in a simple and flexible manner. Just as with product delivery, these devices were already extremely practical in disinfecting agricultural areas and places difficult to access. Now, this has spread to populated areas, so that human intervention in the most affected places can be avoided. An example of this is found in Spain where the UME (Unidad Militar de Emergencia — Spanish Military Emergency Unit) Transmissions Battalion has been using drones for cleaning and disinfecting.

Population management

These drones also have another task: ensuring that the extraordinary regulations that have been implemented to stop the pandemic are being followed. And, like in Spain, in countries like Morocco, the United States and China—to give just a few examples—drones have become the perfect tool to easily detect people who are not complying with the rules and, therefore, putting the population at risk.

Generally, the devices are limited to monitoring the population and warning of improper practice using speakers. However, there are already models that are used to determine each person’s health statistics (temperature, heart rate, etc.) and measure whether there is appropriate distancing from others.

Limits on the use of drones

The main problem with drone use lies in the inherent freedoms of human beings, that is, their limits are set by human rights.

In the current situation, states have the power to place public health before each individual’s right to privacy. However, once alarm or exceptional situations are overcome, conditions must return to normal.

And that is precisely what limits the use of drones that have the ability to capture images (videos or photos) or interfere with the privacy of every person — at least in countries with democratic political regimes where individual freedoms are not as restricted as in authoritarian or dictatorial states.

This means that governments face real headaches because there is generally no ad hoc legislation, or none that is as complete as it should be, nor does it move at the same speed as technology.

The use of drones capable of monitoring is in direct confrontation with Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which establishes the right to private life as fundamental: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honor and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.” And, of course, recording or obtaining information related to a person without consent is clear interference.

Data protection

In this regard, the European Union adheres to a General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which tends to give priority to the rights of individuals, making EU countries one of the areas with the most zeal regarding personal privacy.

And this is also the case with drones. As published in Privacy and Data Protection Issues relating to the Utilization of Drones, the EU’s own Article 29 Work Group highlighted how difficult it is to know a drone’s capabilities, something that does not exempt them from obligations when complying with the regulations. It concluded that drones can only be used on the condition that they do not process personal data.

So, with this in mind, simply analyzing an individual’s temperature or heart rate would conflict with the right to privacy, and that is just one example, since any drone able to do so could not only identify biometric data, but also monitor a person’s status without consent.

Future challenges

Once the coronavirus pandemic is overcome, the main challenge with the use of drones will be finding a legal framework in which the smallest possible gray areas exist. There is no doubt that the advantages and benefits that this technology provides are numerous, but they could also prove to be tools to improperly monitor a democratic state. Therefore, there is still a long way to go.