North Dakota researchers look for ways drones can help in a pandemic

a small drone flies against a blue sky
University and industry researchers in Grand Forks are testing drones for a variety of applications related to the coronavirus pandemic. This drone, photographed on Friday in Grand Forks, has a spray boom attached to sanitize playground equipment.
Courtesy Matt Dunlevy

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, researchers in Grand Forks, N.D., are testing drones as a way to check people’s temperatures from a distance, quickly sanitize playgrounds, and deliver medical supplies.

"We just need to understand how we can use these advanced technologies to help communities deal with a very tough situation like the one we're in right now," said Mark Askelson, executive director of research at the University of North Dakota Institute for Autonomous Systems.

SkySkopes is a Grand Forks drone company working with UND researchers to test several drone applications.

Thermal sensors on a drone can detect elevated body temperature, one symptom of COVID-19.

"This is being done in Australia right now, where the thermal sensors can detect if someone has an elevated body temperature from a distance," said SkySkopes president Matt Dunlevy, who added that researchers are being very careful to protect privacy during the testing.

a drone flies near a playground
A drone sprays playground equipment during a simulated test on Friday in Grand Forks, using the aircraft to sanitize the equipment.
Courtesy Matt Dunlevy

"We're not just going with abandon out into the public and pointing sensors at people to see if they've got a fever that could be symptomatic of COVID," he said.

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Drones could be used to scan people entering a hospital or factory to identify those with elevated body temperatures for additional screening, Dunlevy said.

Another simulation will use drones to move medical supplies quickly over short distances, an application Dunlevy said has real-world uses.

He said a drone could be used “if there's a checkpoint where people are testing and they want to send blood samples back as the crow flies with immediacy, (or) the rapid distribution of a vaccine via drone someday would also be another way to get the nation back online.”

Researchers are also testing the use of drones with attached sprayers to disinfect playgrounds. Some countries are using drones to sanitize public areas in hopes of slowing the spread of COVID-19.

"It's highlighting why drones are an absolutely perfect tool to use, because the resources that would usually sanitize the playgrounds are being requisitioned for other purposes," said Dunlevy.

It's unlikely any of these tests will quickly become real-world applications, but the pandemic could lead to faster-than-normal adoption of drone use, Askelson said.

"It drives people even harder to focus on some of these types of opportunities, and it's hard to predict exactly the effect, but I believe it will accelerate the timeline for being able to do some of these things,” he said.