California startup’s drone software tracks social distancing from the air

A California-based startup has created new drone software capable of monitoring the degree of social distancing and face-mask wearing occurring in real time in any given location.

Founded in 2015, Airspace Systems’ main business focuses on creating software for drone detection, helping places like airports and stadiums to monitor their skies for rogue drones entering restricted airspace. But its latest offering monitors people, not drones, and could assist a number of states across the U.S. as they try to contain coronavirus outbreaks, Reuters reports.

The software works by using artificial intelligence to make sense of real-time video footage captured by drones. If it spots a large number of people gathered together, possibly flouting social distancing recommendations, it automatically sends an alert to the authorities, who can then decide how to respond.

The system can also identify whether or not someone is wearing a face covering, which some states have been recommending people use as part of efforts to prevent the spread of the virus.

The software doesn’t have to be linked to a drone. It can also work with video streams from ground-based cameras, though a remotely controlled flying machine obviously gives operators more flexibility while also reducing setup time.

While the idea of a drone using specially designed software to monitor crowd behavior will unsettle those concerned about privacy, Airspace points out that its system refrains from using facial recognition, and doesn’t send images or video of people to the operator. Information is instead passed on in text form, with all the necessary data, such as the number of people crowded together or the percentage wearing a face covering, delivered securely to the customer.

But efforts to use drones for similar reasons during the pandemic haven’t always worked out. A recent plan in Westport, Connecticut, to deploy a so-called “pandemic drone” that had software capable of detecting violations of social distancing rules, as well as if someone was displaying potential coronavirus symptoms, was abandoned by officials following complaints from a number of residents.

And in Elizabeth, New Jersey, police faced criticism after it started using speaker-equipped drones to blast out messages telling people to return to their homes when shutdown orders were in place in April 2020.

Digital Trends has reached out to Airspace Systems to find out more about its software and we will update this article when we hear back.

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