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Scientists develop ‘pandemic drone’ to monitor crowds


Technology can be used to detect coronavirus symptoms in public places

A drone fitted with sensors and computer vision systems that can remotely detect and monitor infectious respiratory diseases—including the Covid-19 virus—has been developed by defence industry scientists in South Australia and Canada.

The remote video camera technology uses algorithms to detect sneezing and coughing in crowds and can also measure heart rates and breathing.

Javaan Chahl, a robotics engineer and Department of Defence chair of sensor systems at the University of South Australia, is leading the research team. It includes Canadian drone technology company Draganfly and the federal Defence Science and Technology group in Canberra.

Chahl said the technology could be used to screen outdoor crowds, airports and office buildings for Covid-19 symptoms. The team is already working with Draganfly to develop commercial applications for governments and medical services.

“It might not detect all cases, but it could be a reliable tool to detect the presence of the disease in a place or in a group of people,” Chahl said in a university statement.

The drone technology was originally developed for use in war zones and natural disaster rescue operations, and to remotely monitor heart rates of premature babies in incubators.

“Now, shockingly, we see a need for its use immediately, to help save lives in the biggest health catastrophe the world has experienced in the past 100 years,” Chahl said.

In 2017, he worked with Ali Al-Naji and Asanka Perera from the university’s school of engineering to develop image-processing algorithms that could identify a human heart rate from a drone video.

After further research, the system can now use drones to measure heart and breathing rates with a high degree of accuracy within 5 to 10 metres of groups of people. Fixed cameras using the technology can achieve the same degree of accuracy at distances of up to 50 metres. The Adelaide-based research team has also developed algorithms that can interpret human actions such as sneezing and coughing.

Cameron Chell, chair and chief executive of Draganfly, said the sensors could be used to screen crowds at large venues, ports of entry and refugee camps. He said the system would include infrared, Doppler radar and high-resolution cameras. These will relay images to a software system that can detect symptoms such as coughs, sneezes and watery eyes within 15 to 20 seconds of overflight by the drones.