As countries around the world are gradually reopening following lockdowns, government authorities are using surveillance drones in an attempt to enforce social distancing rules.
In India, police are using AI-equipped drones developed by US start-up Skylark Labs to monitor evening curfews and the distance between people who are outside during the day.
The drones are being flown in six cities in the northern state of Punjab, and are also being trialled in the southern city of Bangalore, says Skylark Labs CEO Amarjot Singh.
Each drone is fitted with a camera and an AI that can detect humans within a range of 150 metres to 1 kilometre. If it spots people it can send an alert to police in the district located nearest to the sighting.
The system can also calculate the physical distance between two or more individuals and let the police know if people get too close to each other. The police can then go to the location and issue a fine if they see people breaching the rules.
“Previously, the police had no idea of where people were gathering, so now they are able to view larger areas,” says Singh.
India was shut down on 25 March and lockdown restrictions are set to remain in place in many parts of the country until at least 17 May. In the more severely hit areas, residents aren’t allowed to go outside at any time without reason.
In the US, authorities in several states have used drones fitted with cameras and loudspeakers to broadcast messages urging social distancing.
Some firms have also floated the idea of using drones equipped with thermal imaging to identify potentially infected people with fevers. However, the World Health Organization suggests that “temperature screening alone may not be very effective” at detecting covid-19.
In the UK, Derbyshire Police were criticised for drone footage posted on social media in March, appearing to shame people exercising in the Peak District, even though they were adhering to social distancing guidelines.
Drones were also used by Chinese authorities at highway checkpoints in February, when the covid-19 outbreak spread domestically there.
“Police departments around the world have been looking for a good excuse to begin to acquire and use drones more regularly,” says Matthew Guariglia at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group based in San Francisco.
Although the public might not mind drones being used for public health purposes, we are concerned that their use may continue long afterwards, says Guariglia. It opens the opportunity for future police surveillance of protests or other large public gatherings, particularly if the drones are equipped with face-recognition systems, he says.
Drones that can recognise and track individuals raise serious privacy concerns, agrees Singh. Skylark Lab’s drones are only able to detect human bodies and can’t pick up any specific facial details, he says. “Every technology needs to be used responsibly,” he says.
Because many of these surveillance technologies are being developed by private companies, it is difficult to know whether any drones currently in use by government authorities for covid-19 monitoring include facial recognition, says Guariglia.
“Drones might be a small part of some kind of recovery effort, but they cannot be a majority of how we invest public health time and resources,” he says. “We cannot surveil and police our way out of an epidemic.”
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