Coronavirus News: Pandemic drones to monitor fever, crowds from above

ELIZABETH, New Jersey (WABC) -- As city and state leaders work to figure out how to reopen daily life safely, some places are looking to technology to help make that happen -- technology that could be hovering above us.

Cities like Elizabeth, New Jersey, are already deploying drones with automated voice messages reminding people to keep their distance. In Meriden, Connecticut, the mayor announced they'll be using them to monitor the city's trails and parks.

But some new drones that are under development now will be equipped not only with cameras, but high tech sensors that can help determine if people are sick or not social distancing down below.

"You''ll be seeing this very soon," said Cameron Chell, CEO of Draganfly, one of the oldest commercial drone companies.

He said they're deploying pilot drone programs across the country this month, including one in the Tri-State Area.

"Where it's most critically needed is where we're going," Chell said.

If the drones follow local and federal regulations, they can be operated just about anywhere as long as they hover within 20 stories of where people are located on the ground to pick up real time data.

"What these cameras can do is actually detect fever, which is very different than detecting just temperature," Chell said. "They can detect sneezing. They can detect your heart rate, your respiratory rate, and they can also detect social distancing. So imagine, if you will, a situation where there's a crowd, and you want to determine what's the infection rate of the crowd and if they are practicing social distancing. Is this a hot spot that is a problem?"

Daniel Schwarz, the privacy and technology strategist with the New York Civil Liberties Union, says there are concerns the technology could be used improperly.

"There can be a place for advanced technology to support health efforts during a crisis like this one, but it should always serve a clear public health purpose," he said in a statement. "Indefinite and unwarranted mass crowd policing does not fit that purpose. Surveillance tools used during the pandemic should be scientifically justified, communicated transparently to the public, limited in their scope and duration, and should always require informed consent. Constant aerial surveillance combined with biased analytics would fundamentally change what it feels like to venture out in public in this country, violate our constitutional rights to freedom of association and privacy, and open the door to expanded broken windows policing of communities uniquely vulnerable to COVID-19."

However, Chell said the technology is not created to identify specific people, only to help keep people safe and flatten the curve.

"As it stands today, it's not designed to identify people with the system," he said. "It's designed to basically provide health monitoring data and be able to give us better data but make more clear decisions."

In a Facebook post, the Elizabeth Police Department said it's using its drones to "save lives" not to be "big brother."

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