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Pandemic drone fails to get off the ground in Connecticut

Police in Connecticut have abandoned a plan to use a specially designed drone as part of efforts to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.

The deployment, recently reported on by Digital Trends, would have seen the Westport Police Department (WPD) use the drone to spot potential violations of social distancing measures, and even detect possible symptoms of COVID-19.

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But the plan has been ditched after a number of residents expressed privacy concerns about the idea, with some gathering to protest outside the WPD building last week.

Built by Canadian firm Draganfly, the advanced quadcopter features special sensors and computer vision technology that enable it to identify the heart and respiratory rate of an individual, as well as their temperature, from as far away as 58 meters (190 feet). It can also detect if someone coughs or sneezes in a crowd, and, with its live video feed, can pick out anyone failing to observe social distancing rules designed to reduce the spread of the virus.

The system doesn’t collect individualized data, nor does it deploy facial recognition technology, though this evidently wasn’t enough to allay residents’ concerns.

First Selectman Jim Marpe of the WPD said in a statement that in its “good faith effort to get ahead of the virus and potential need to manage and safely monitor crowds and social distancing in this environment, our announcement [to use the drone] was perhaps misinterpreted, not well-received, and posed many additional questions.”

Marpe added: “We heard and respect your concerns, and are therefore stepping back and re-considering the full impact of the technology and its use in law enforcement protocol.”

WPD Chief Foti Koskinas promised his police department would always be “responsive and respectful” of people’s concerns but added that Draganfly’s technology could still become “a valuable lifesaving tool.”

Pleased with the WPD’s reversal, David McGuire, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, told Westport News: “We are not hearing a cry for new surveillance technologies,” adding, “The urgent need at the moment, according to public health experts, is to ramp up testing capability, suppress transmission through social distancing measures, and support our hospitals as they face an influx of patients.”

Drone technology has been used in other countries during the coronavirus crisis, including in France and Spain as part of efforts to enforce lockdown rules.

We’ve reached out to Draganfly to find how it feels about the decision and whether its technology has been deployed by any other police departments in the fight against COVID-19, and we will update this article when we hear back.

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