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Pandemic Acts as Trial Run for Many Emerging Technologies

In the face of COVID-19, government agencies looked to drones, thermal sensing and other sometimes controversial tech to help track and trace the virus and maintain public health. Will a newfound open-mindedness last?

thermal image of a human head
The onset of the novel coronavirus forced many who were reluctant to embrace technology into Internet-dependent remote work environments, virtual meetings and even to government websites in numbers never before seen. Chief information officers in state and local government that Government Technology has interviewed over the past few months predict that the traditional way of working that tethered staff to physical buildings will never return. Maryland CIO Michael Leahy said in a virtual NASCIO panel in May that he’s seriously considering making the switch to telework permanent for all state IT personnel. So while the pandemic was most definitely unwelcome, it forced open some minds that had previously been closed to technology’s potential.

But will this wave of good feelings extend to other nascent technologies that aren’t fully mainstreamed? The past few years have brought unwelcome revelations about the practices of some big technology companies whose business models depend on trading in personal data many of its users didn’t realize was being collected. And many Americans still fear widespread use of Big Brother-style surveillance technologies. But the crisis prompted a new acceptance of experimentation in the name of protecting public health. While we don’t yet know whether these small-scale uses will become permanent, they at least provided a chance for a close look at their potential in practice. Here, we look at recent deployments of a handful of emerging technologies called into service because of COVID-19.

Thermal Imaging

When COVID-19 began sweeping across the country earlier this year, thermal camera and sensor vendor FLIR Systems began marketing its products as a way to help screen people for fevers. The cameras, which can read heat signatures on people and objects, have traditionally been used in industrial and military settings, but FLIR believes they could be used to help organizations navigate the pandemic and evaluate illness.

“We’ve just seen an immense uptick in interest since all this started,” said Chris Bainter, global business development director with FLIR, discussing the global interest from public and private organizations alike. Evidence that the tech is graining traction, the company installed its temperature screening system at the Pentagon Visitor Center in early June.

FLIR is not alone. Thermal cameras are seeing an industry boom, and many other security firms across the globe have begun marketing their products as potential tools to deploy against the spread of illness. Since the pandemic hit, sales have been brisk for Athena Security, said CEO Lisa Falzone, which recently launched its Fever Detection COVID-19 Screening System. 

Much of this buying has been going on in the private sector: According to Bainter, his company has recently developed contracts with restaurant owners, grocery stores, events vendors and others. Similarly, Falzone said her company has seen interest from all over: hospitals, 911 call centers, airports and more.

“The orders are coming in from all walks of life, businesses large and small that want a pre-screening technology in place,” she said in an email. 

However, these cameras don’t detect the virus itself, they merely measure whether a person has an elevated skin temperature or not. This means that they aren’t a catch-all solution, but rather, could be integrated into a broader public health and safety process involving screening and diagnosis.

Hypothetically, these devices could have many uses for governments. City halls could identify sick staff before they entered a building; airports could screen passengers to cut down on the likelihood of national or international carriers; and jails and prisons might be able to prevent an outbreak before it occurs. 

In other parts of the world — such as Europe and large parts of Asia — this is already taking place. There, thermal imaging systems are paired with other tech like facial recognition, movement predictive algorithms and data tracking to help contain the virus.

At the pandemic’s ground zero, in Wuhan, China, transportation hubs recently began rolling out a thermal imaging system created to spot people with fevers. This system, designed to set off an alert when an individual’s temperature rises above 37 degrees centigrade, also has an AI-driven facial recognition component that can identify specific individuals.

For obvious reasons, federal or municipal deployment of such technology in the U.S. has had its detractors, and civil liberty activists worry that the tech goes too far in its pursuit of safety. 

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) published a statement earlier this year on thermal cameras, questioning the accuracy of the technology, and arguing that the surveillance infrastructure being built up now might become permanent even after the virus goes away.

“After 9/11, we got the Patriot Act,” said Matthew Guariglia, policy analyst with EFF. “A lot of times [after a large event] the initial public safety concerns allow people to ignore or disregard the long-term civil liberties implications, because of the initial panic. Terrorism is one thing — because it’s an ongoing problem. But there’s no reason why this kind of technology would need to stick around after the COVID-19 crisis is over.” 


Unacast’s Social Distancing Scoreboard shows the change in the number of “human encounters” in Manhattan from Feb. 26 to March 24. / Source: Unacast

Cellphone Location Data

In late March, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) announced it was using a “Social Distancing” dashboard recently launched by Unacast, a location data and analytics firm, that uses phone GPS data to illustrate the spread of the virus.

The data, which is anonymized and aggregated, showed at a county level how effectively residents were abiding by local stay-at-home orders. Updated daily, the dashboard synthesized data from a number of sources, according to a company representative.

The dashboard also graded communities on how well they practiced social distancing and stayed away from “non-essential” outdoor venues, like stores, hotels and restaurants.

“We have to uniformly, across the state of Kansas, get serious about this to decrease the amount of travel we’re doing and stay home,” said Dr. Lee Norman, the head of KDHE, at a joint press conference with Gov. Laura Kelly.

And while this type of tracking technology has been somewhat controversial, Ashley Jones-Wisner, senior director of public affairs with KDHE, said that the platform was merely a means of showing whether people were mostly following the containment orders.

“There are essential services and actions allowable under the Stay at Home order. The data, as indicated in the [Unacast] methodology section, takes that into account but looks for overall reduction,” she said.

By late May, all 50 states had begun reopening, with many variations on phased approaches appropriate to local circumstances. How to safely and fully reopen economies is a question on everyone’s mind, and a consensus is forming: Experts don’t believe governments and businesses can safely reopen without wide-scale testing and tracing.

To that end, some researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and separately at companies such as Apple and Google, are designing apps to help fill that role.

MIT’s Safe Paths platform uses GPS and Bluetooth to log people’s locations in a secure diary, so if they wind up testing positive for the coronavirus, they can provide health officials with a record of where they’ve been. Health officials can then use the Web app to redact personally identifiable information from the location trail and release the information to the public, so other people can look up — or even get automatic notifications — if they recently crossed paths with any carriers.

Safepaths is open source and interoperable with similar apps, and both are crucial to build the knowledge base needed to reopen the economy, according to MIT project lead and Associate Professor Ramesh Raskar. Absent an organized federal test-and-trace program, state and local governments will need to acquire that information themselves.

Apple and Google announced in April that they’re working on a similar software kit, and released application programming interfaces (APIs) in May that allow interoperability between Android and iOS devices using apps from public health authorities. In the coming months, both companies will release a broader Bluetooth-based contact tracing platform: “a more robust solution than an API [that] would allow more individuals to participate, if they choose to opt in, as well as enable interaction with a broader ecosystem of apps and government health authorities,” according to the announcement.

Similar contact tracing mobile apps are underway around the world: In Europe, Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing is developing a scalable, interoperable software system for mobile-based contact tracing; in Singapore, the government used a tool called TraceTogether; in Hong Kong, it was called StayHomeSafe.

In short, contact tracing in the United States and around the world will be a team effort. MIT said it’s working in various capacities with people from Harvard, Stanford, State University of New York at Buffalo, Mayo Clinic, Massachusetts General Hospital, the World Health Organization, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies; as well as with experts from governments and institutions in Canada, Germany, India, Italy, the United Kingdom and Vietnam.

Above all, Raskar was adamant that contact tracing will still require interviews and organized work from public agencies, in addition to data yielded by mobile apps and software platforms.

“We think that manual contact tracing by public officials is a very important piece of the puzzle. We don’t think this problem can be solved purely by a piece of software,” he said.


Companies that make delivery robots found that shelter-in-place orders have expedited public testing of their technologies. / Credit:

Delivery Robots

The COVID-19 crisis also seems to be jettisoning real-world uses of autonomous technology. In a recent example, wheeled robotic cargo devices began delivering food from restaurants in Virginia. Starship Technologies deployed a fleet of 20 autonomous “on-demand robots” in April in Fairfax, Va. The devices deliver food and groceries from a handful of restaurants and markets in and around the small city’s downtown area.

The robots travel via city sidewalks and move about 4 mph, making short-distance deliveries within a radius of a few miles, according to the company. The devices are controlled remotely, can travel in rain or snow, and have human operators ready to take over.

“We like to frame ourselves as being very innovative and forward thinking when it comes to trying new things to help grow our local economy. And so, this had been on my radar, but it really bubbled to the top,” Fairfax Economic Development Director Christopher Bruno said in April.

The autonomous devices have separate insulated areas for hot and cold items, and are equipped with cameras, sensors and other technology to help them glean traffic patterns, curb-cuts and other information about the built urban environment.

“They’re able to take food from restaurants and deliver it to the front door of residents that are ordering food through their app,” said Bruno. “There’s no better time to be trying something like this, in a time when we’re discouraging human contact,” he added.

Users must download the Starship app, where they can select and order items, and then set where the order should be delivered. Shoppers can also follow the vehicle ferrying their goods via an icon making its way across a map of the area. When the robot arrives, shoppers receive an alert, and then unlock the device via the app.

Starship operates in five countries, and has mostly traveled across college campuses in the United States to date. Its devices have logged 100,000 commercial deliveries, traveled 500,000 miles and crossed 5 million streets around the world as of June 1, according to company officials. Starship has recently launched a similar service in Mountain View and Irvine, Calif.; Tempe, Ariz.; and Washington, D.C.

Autonomous technology was also recently put to work in Florida, where small autonomous shuttles are used to transport COVID-19 tests at the Mayo Clinic. And Refraction AI began testing its small autonomous delivery vehicles in Ann Arbor, Mich., more than a year ago.

The coronavirus crisis has rattled the lives of residents and businesses worldwide, as local governments scrambled to assemble rescue and other aid measures for local businesses. A project to launch a fleet of robot delivery vehicles would normally take months to plan and deploy, said Bruno, but it was expedited in light of the urgency brought on by the pandemic. “We’re essentially pulling this together in a little under two weeks,” Bruno said.


Within weeks of the outbreak hitting the U.S., drones became a tool for local police departments looking to help control COVID-19 cases in their communities.

The most common use case appears to be utilizing the machines to reinforce social distancing rules. If a crowd gathers in a public area, an officer will deploy a drone that will, via loudspeakers and a recorded message, urge citizens to disperse. This method has been used in countries like China and Spain.

According to multiple sources in the Elizabeth Police Department in New Jersey, officers were seeing public crowds daily, whether on street corners, in play areas or in public streets.

“The practical reasoning is that a drone can cover more ground and have a greater vantage point over officers on the ground,” according to the department. “It also facilitates in assisting patrol in getting to hard-to-reach areas. Officers can patrol remote areas without leaving their vehicle area. PSAs can be delivered in public places without the danger of officer contact.”

Keturah Greene, public information coordinator for the Savannah Police Department in Georgia, cited similar reasoning.

“Since utilizing various strategies such as placing a sign board with social distancing messaging in a popular park which is usually highly populated, utilizing the drones and by educating the community through social media, we have not had any issues recently [with public crowds],” Greene said.

The Elizabeth and Savannah police departments also provided their own responses to concerns about this particular use of drones potentially infringing upon citizens’ rights.

Greene indicated that “neither video footage nor audio is being captured” when Savannah police send drones to inform crowds of social distancing guidelines. Moreover, drones in Savannah aren’t involved in general patrol work.

In its statement, the Elizabeth Police Department said the PSAs aren’t delivered by drones for “surveillance purposes.”  The department also referred to legal precedent.

“There’s been plenty of case law on how this does not infringe on citizens’ rights,” the email read. “Florida v. Riley held that police officials do not need a warrant to observe an individual’s property from public airspace.”

Lt. James Munro, who works for the Clovis Police Department in California, said his department won’t be using its drones to issue social distancing messages to crowds. Munro added that Clovis always takes a cautious approach, only using drones when necessary and being mindful of the public’s trust.

“It would make more sense to use a patrol car [to issue PSAs],” Munro said. “You can cover more ground faster. With drones, you have to have line of sight.”

The Elizabeth Police Department indicated to Government Technology that it’s looking into using drones to map out future COVID-19 test sites, monitor such sites and assist emergency medical technicians.

Two factors may continue to drive more drone use during the pandemic. First, the Federal Aviation Administration issued an update titled “Drone Use for COVID-19 Response Efforts” on April 14. With this update, the organization opened the door for drone transport of goods and “certain medical supplies,” as well as expedited approvals for “flights that support emergency activities and appropriate government, health or community initiatives.”

Second, Chinese drone manufacturer DJI announced its Disaster Relief Program in late March. As part of the emergency program, DJI has sent 100 drones to public safety agencies in almost half of all states.

Munro said he sees drones becoming even more important for police work in the future.

“Drones [are] one piece of technology that, as a police agency, I don’t think we could live without anymore, to be honest with you,” Munro said.

But drone use in response to COVID-19 has had controversy. Police in Westport, Conn., thought they had found a viable method to monitor whether citizens showed signs of COVID-19 infection in the form of a new drone, but public comments inspired the local department to abandon the technology.

The Police Department in Westport decided against participating in the “Flatten the Curve Pilot” two days after announcing its intention to test new drone technology from Draganfly. According to a news release from Draganfly, the drone uses a “specialized sensor and computer vision systems” that can detect fever, measure heart and respiratory rates, and identify whether people are coughing, sneezing or practicing social distancing. The drone can reportedly do all of this from up to 190 feet away.

According to the press release announcing the Westport project, such drones wouldn’t be used around private yards, but they would help monitor “beaches, train stations, parks and recreation areas, and shopping centers.”

Westport Police Chief Foti Koskinas said COVID-19 has ushered in an age where drones need to be utilized for public safety. The department confirmed to GT that it wanted to be transparent about its intention to use Draganfly’s drones, with the expectation that the public would make its feelings known upon learning about the program. Amid both positive and negative feedback, the agency canceled the project.

One organization speaking out in opposition was the Connecticut chapter of the ACLU.

“Any new surveillance measure that isn’t being advocated for by public health professionals and restricted solely for public health use should be promptly rejected,” said David McGuire, executive director of ACLU of Connecticut, as reported by the Hartford Courant, “and we are naturally skeptical of towns announcing these kinds of partnerships without information about who is operating the drones, what data they will collect, or how, or if that data will be stored, shared or sold.”

Despite the setback for Draganfly, CEO Cameron Chell told VentureBeat that the company has two more pilots lined up. And though both pilots would be in the private sector, Chell cited interest from others in the public sector, and remarked that initial testing in Westport showed promise. 

Government Technology is a sister site to Governing. Both are divisions of e.Republic.

Government Technology is Governing's sister e.Republic publication, offering in-depth coverage of IT case studies, emerging technologies and the implications of digital technology on the policies and management of public sector organizations.
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