As COVID-19 swept through the world in early 2020, technology companies scrambled to repurpose their products to fight the pandemic. This repurposing was especially pronounced in the civilian drone industry, whose companies predicted that the pandemic would prove the value of their map-making, inspection, and delivery technology. As drones were adapted for everything from monitoring social-distance requirements to delivering medical supplies, companies hoped that a historically drone-skeptical public might be won over by the technology once and for all.
But how many of those lofty predictions about how drones would help humanity survive the pandemic actually came true? More than a year after the pandemic was declared, the impact of drones in combating the pandemic, despite the industry’s predictions, have been decidedly mixed. While they have shown potential in their ability to deliver medical supplies, drones have also been deployed in a variety of ways to control populations and carry out token public-health work. Of the lofty predictions about drones’ life-saving capabilities, none have come true, undermining efforts demonstrate the genuinely helpful ways drones can be deployed and build public support for the technology.
The promise of drone delivery
At the start of the pandemic, the drone industry was worried. The fast growth in consumer drone adoption since 2016 was starting to slow. In 2019, the U.S. consumer drone fleet grew by a mere 6% according to data from research firm Drone Analyst, a major drop from 2018’s 14% growth figure. But the commercial drone industry, which includes drones used for everything from mapping vineyards to monitoring construction, was doing considerably better, growing by 23%, up from 2018’s figure of 18%. So when COVID-19 struck, drone companies responded by looking for ways to promote the virtues of little flying robots to people fighting the virus. Delivery drone makers, some of which already had some experience delivering medical supplies leapt into action, hoping to prove the usefulness of their products. The results have been mixed.
Zipline, one of the world’s largest and best known drone delivery companies, had been trialling its drone delivery systems for light-weight medical supplies in Rwanda and Ghana for years by the time the pandemic hit, working closely with policymakers more willing to accommodate delivery drones in their airspace than authorities in the United States, the EU, and other, larger nations. Zipline’s largely autonomous drones can carry a payload of up to 3.9 pounds almost 50 miles, and since 2019, the company has been working to build out Ghana’s drone delivery infrastructure in concert with Pfizer, Ghana’s Health Ministry, UPS, and other partners. These efforts laid the groundwork for a system that could easily be expanded when the pandemic began. In a June 2021 interview, Zipline CEO Keller Rinaudo said that the company had delivered at least 2.6 million COVID-19 vaccine doses (primarily of the Aztra-Zeneca vaccine, which does not require temperatures as cool as those needed for the MRNA vaccines) in Ghana. The company planned to deliver over 2.4 million more, with a particular focus on remote and roadless areas, by the end of the year.
In Rwanda, where Zipline’s system is most developed, the company specializes primarily in delivering blood, medical supplies, and PPE. In February of this year, it rolled out 24-hour operations, permitting hospitals to make delivery requests at night. While Zipline is not presently delivering COVID-19 vaccines within Rwanda, the company is working with Pfizer to develop cold-chain technologies that might make delivery of the more effective MRNA vaccines by drone a possibility.
Pandemic-related drone delivery projects in places that didn’t have Rwanda and Ghana’s drone delivery network and friendly regulatory regime in place when COVID-19 arrived are considerably more basic affairs. At time of publication, no country besides Ghana is delivering vaccines via drone. Outside of Zipline’s projects in Africa, other COVID-19 focused delivery projects have been far more small-scale and experimental in nature, as this list compiled by technology NGO WeRobotics indicates.
In the United States, a number of companies conducted drone delivery trials during the pandemic, usually operating with special, tightly limited waivers for flight beyond visual line of sight issued by the Federal Aviation Administration. In May 2020, Zipline partnered with North Carolina’s Novant Health to ferry small items like masks, gloves, and gowns weighing no more than four pounds between a medical center and a supply storage location, making trips of approximately 20 to 30 miles. In September 2020, Zipline announced a new drone delivery partnership with Walmart. Since September 2020, drone delivery company Volansi has been trialing its own delivery technology with pharmaceutical giant Merck, carrying out short deliveries of temperature-controlled vaccines, (excluding, so far, COVID-19 vaccines). Other experiments included a brief pilot program in September 2020 between Walmart and drone delivery company DroneUp that ferried COVID-19 tests to a few locations (under very tight location restrictions), an effort in Syracuse that saw COVID-19 test kits flown a half-mile between a hospital and a biotech building, and a joint project between UPS, Verizon, and drone company Skyward to deliver prescription drugs a half-mile between a pharmacy and a pick-up location at The Villages retirement home in Florida.
While these pandemic-era drone delivery programs show promise for the potential of using flying robots as a delivery mechanism, it is less than clear that they have made a significant impact in fighting COVID-19. The use of drones to deliver vaccines in Ghana is perhaps the best example of drones making a clear and direct impact on battling the virus. But even in that instance, we have little public information on how drones compare, in time and price, to traditional means of moving medical supplies. Zipline doesn’t release figures on how much each delivery actually costs, and the cost-effectiveness of using drones remains uncertain. A 2019 study concluded that in West Africa motorcycles are a more cost-effective means of transporting laboratory samples compared to drones, and a 2021 World Economic Forum and Deloitte report concluded that drone programs struggle to become cost-effective for governments unless they have three factors in place: an affordable drone-technology vendor, expensive ground transportation, and large scale. Drones likely have little value for COVID testing in most cases. As a September 2020 UNICEF report pointed out, COVID lab-tests typically take 12 to 72 hours to produce a result, and a drone that shaves a few minutes off delivery times probably isn’t worth the trouble.
But the pandemic has provided a deal of good PR for the industry. Press releases from drone delivery firms and largely uncritical media coverage have likely had the effect of overstating the importance of delivery drones in the United States to combat the pandemic. As vaccinations continue to decrease in the United States while infections continue to rise, one hard truth is becoming clear. America’s public health problems lie less in vaccine-delivery logistics and much more in public health messaging. A vaccine delivered in record time by a drone isn’t much good if few people want to take it.
The drone opportunists
Though drone delivery systems have proved somewhat useful during the pandemic, if not to the extent that their proponents might claim, the same cannot be said about an array of pandemic-fighting drone products marketed by opportunistic firms selling untested and dubious systems to a frightened public.
Today, the medical evidence overwhelmingly shows that essentially no one contracts COVID-19 from touching surfaces. Instead, they contract it from breathing air they’ve shared with an infected person. During the early days of the virus, when scientists had yet to determine this, the world embarked on a global disinfection campaign. Stores, entire towns, and even people (including some in a Texas ICE detention center) were hosed down with supposedly virus-killing chemicals. Sensing a market opportunity, drone companies and start-ups leapt into action. It was relatively easy to re-equip drones already outfitted for spraying fields and crops (a common use of the technology) to spray virus-killing disinfectants over-populated areas instead. Soon, sprayer drones hovered over towns, shopping centers, and sporting arenas. In Shenzhen, the Chinese drone maker DJI claimed that it sprayed disinfectant over “3 million square meters.”
As the pandemic spread around the globe, the downside of this chemical craze became apparent. Wildlife died from overexposure to chemicals, workers were placed at risk of chemical exposure, and calls to poison control centers about exposure to chemicals skyrocketed. And COVID infection rates continued to rise. By May 2020, the WHO had recommended against the “routine application of disinfectants to environmental surfaces by spraying or fogging.” By April 2021, the EPA stated that it “does not recommend” applying pesticide products with wide-range spraying tools like drones “unless the pesticide product label specifically includes disinfection directions” for that method.
While expert opinion has turned against the spraying of public areas with disinfectants—including with drones—there still appears to be demand for such services. In October 2020, the Atlanta Falcons announced a partnership with a drone disinfection company to hose down its stadiums. Ahead of the 2021 spring training season, drones were used to sanitize at least one baseball stadium. And in March 2021, an Arizona auction house said it would rely on the drone-maker Draganfly to hose down its facility. Ultimately, these disinfecting drones likely do very little to reduce the spread of the virus, but they do give companies and venues an eye-catching way to reassure the public that they’re doing something.
As spurious COVID-fighting drone applications proliferated, some drone makers seized on a fantastical idea: What if they could use camera-equipped drones to detect sick people from the air? In March 2020, a Chinese company claimed it could alert authorities to unwell people by using a thermal camera mounted to a drone. The following month police in Westport, Connecticut, announced they would partner with Draganfly to use computer vision tools to monitor citizen’s temperatures and detect signs of coughing and illness, only to shut the program down amid a ferocious public backlash. While fever-detecting drones present obvious privacy risks, they have a bigger problem: There’s zero evidence they actually work. Thermal sensors that remain stationary on the ground already have worrisomely low accuracy rates, and these problems grow exponentially worse when trying to determine multiple people’s temperatures all at once from a position hundreds of feet in the sky. While fever detection drones have mostly fallen out of use, they remain appealing to some authorities trying to reassure a skeptical public of the wisdom of reopening societies. As of early June, authorities in South Korea were planning to use thermal-camera equipped drones to detect feverish people on the beach—just about the most hostile environment imaginable for accurately capturing human body temperature from the air.
While fever detection drones remained somewhat niche, many more authorities experimented with using drones to monitor social distancing and lockdown compliance. While China pioneered the practice, authorities in the United States, Spain, France, the UK, and India (among other nations) quickly followed suit, using drone video to determine if people were stepping outside or congregating in too-large numbers. Authorities could even use the drones to yell at people, thanks to a DJI-manufactured drone equipped with a speaker. An early drone video from the pandemic, shot in China in January 2020, depicts a startled-looking elderly woman gazing up at a drone. “Yes, this drone is speaking to you!” it shouts at her, and she, eyes-wide, turns around and scurries in the other direction. Police in Chula Vista, California seized upon the idea of using one such shout-drone to communicate with homeless people in an isolated canyon. Chula Vista police claimed the approach would reduce infection risk to both them and to officers, but experts on homelessness were decidedly skeptical.
Social distancing drones received a distinctly chilly reception. To critics, the drones created a pervasive, panopticon-like sense of constant aerial surveillance, even though the drones themselves usually could stay in the air for no longer than about 30 minutes at a time. A court in Paris ruled that city authorities couldn’t use drones to monitor social distancing, and communities in the United States snapped back at their use by local police. Some U.S. lawmakers expressed concern that these police aircraft typically were made by DJI, a Chinese company.
COVID’s impact on drones
What can we conclude about drones and COVID-19? Financially, the pandemic doesn’t appear to have significantly hurt the drone industry. It may even have helped it, as industry leaders entered 2020 concerned about then-stagnating growth in the consumer, fly-a-drone-for-fun market. That may no longer be the case. Market researchers at NPD wrote in a January 2021 report that sales of consumer drones—most likely to locked-down people seeking socially-distanced activities—“soared” during the pandemic, with sales more than doubling from March to November of 2020 as compared to 2019. An April 2021 report on the drone hardware industry claimed that sales of drones used for agricultural spraying rose by a whopping 135%, with most of the growth taking place in Asia. Major drone map-making software company DroneDeploy told Fast Company that it saw a 130% increase in its business in April 2020 as compared to April 2019. A number of drone delivery companies, like Zipline, also appear to have benefited handsomely from the flurry of attention that their services received. Some analysts now predict the global drone market will hit $6.15 billion by 2023, a marked jump from the market’s $3.64 billion take in 2020.
But COVID-19 has also complicated the drone industry’s efforts to have the technology it sells be widely accepted as “normal” and unstigmatized by association with authoritarian power. Over the last decade, camera-carrying drones have proven to be an invaluable tool for civilian pursuits from ecological research to transportation planning, disaster response, winemaking, and more, but many people still distrust drones and the people who use them. While the technology has received plenty of positive press around somewhat overblown efforts to “help” fight the pandemic by the less controversial means of delivering medical supplies and spraying down stadium seats, those reports have, in many places, become overshadowed by the darker images of drones being used to enforce lockdowns and intimidate protesters as the pandemic wore on. While small drones are not a more inherently militarized technology than an iPhone, a standard digital camera, or a SUV—all commonly used by police—that is not how much of the public sees it. Instead of making drones seem approachable, the government’s embrace of drone technology for public control during the COVID-era may, unfortunately, have furthered drones’ reputation as a tool of oppression. It would be a shame if the pandemic makes it that much harder to realize drones’ potential as a tool for peaceful purposes.
Faine Greenwood is a consultant and writer on civilian drone technology.