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Drones in Florida Remind Residents to Keep Their Social Distance

Daytona Beach, Fla., police are using drones with speaker equipment to remind residents that public gatherings are prohibited during social distancing. Some Mass. police are impressed and may adopt similar methods.

(TNS) — Police continue to get calls about people not practicing social distancing to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.

In Westborough, Mass., Chief Jeffrey Lourie said parents call to report their kids sneaking out at night to meet friends.

In Marlborough, where parks and playgrounds are temporarily closed because of COVID-19 concerns, Chief David Giorgi said some kids continue to play soccer and lacrosse in a field right behind the police station.

The answer to these vexing social distancing problems may come from police in Daytona Beach, Florida. With a population of 68,000, the city is roughly the size of Framingham, and its police department is using drones equipped with a speaker to fly over public areas to remind people in groups of 10 or more that it's time to leave.

"It's a nice, gentle announcement," said Sgt. Tim Ehrenkaufer, who runs the drone program for Daytona Beach police. And, it's working; people are peacefully leaving those areas, he said.

The two Mavic 2 Enterprise drones that fly over parks in Daytona Beach are on loan from a company based in China called DJI Enterprises, and Ehrenkaufer said his department may be the first in country using drones in this manner.

Lourie's department has a drone, but he doesn't see using it to fight COVID-19. A drone makes sense for long stretches of beach in places like Daytona, Lourie said. But in Westborough, where parks and playgrounds are still open to the public, officers use the public address system in their cruisers to give a friendly reminder that groups of people are frowned upon.

Massachusetts is not using drones for any pandemic-related purposes, according to the state Department of Transportation. If there is a need, the agency will work with the Federal Aviation Administration to get the necessary approvals.

'Pretty Ingenious'

"How Daytona Beach police are using them is pretty ingenious," said Giorgi, whose department does not have a drone.

Giorgi is concerned his officers are at risk of contracting the coronavirus when they have to get out the cruiser, walk over to a group of people and remind them that parks and playgrounds are temporarily closed in Marlborough.

Besides the drones on loan, Daytona Beach police also expect to put one of their existing drones in the police station's lobby to help combat COVID-19. It's equipped with a FLIR (Forward-looking infrared) camera and a monitor. If a visitor has an elevated body temperature, the monitor shows their image in a shade of red. It puts police on alert that the person may need immediate medical attention.

"That's interesting. I have to think about that," Lourie said of the lobby drone. The number of visitors to his lobby has decreased in the last few weeks, he said, and officers are entering through the back of the building to minimize interactions with the public.

Privacy Issues

Privacy issues could come into play in the case of the drone in a police lobby, Giorgi acknowledged, but he thinks the benefits, especially given the risk of COVID-19, must be considered.

"Given the times we're in, the benefits could outweigh the negative," Giorgi said. "It seems the drone in the Daytona Beach lobby is put there to help people. They may not be aware they have a high temperature."

Wayland Police Chief Patrick Swanick said, "It's an interesting use of technology."

Wayland has one drone used primarily for search-and-rescue operations. It's equipped with FLIR technology, and can be used to fly over a building and identify hot spots on a roof during a fire.

Most residents are following Wayland's closure of all public parks and fields, but Swanick said he gets a few calls about people bending the rules.

"We try to be nice and encourage them to move along, to practice social distancing," Swanick said.

Ultimately, using drones in Massachusetts to fight COVID-19 may be an idea worth exploring.

"It's not a bad idea," Giorgi said of the drone work in Daytona Beach.

©2020 Wicked Local Metro, Needham, Mass. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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