The coronavirus outbreak has already disrupted much of our everyday life and at this stage, it's not likely to be going away any time soon. To help track its spread in Australia, a team of university researchers is looking to set up a 'pandemic drone' that will detect potential cases based on symptoms.
The team at University of South Australia, led by Professor Javaan Chahl, is teaming up with a Canadian drone company, Draganfly, to develop a new type of coronavirus monitoring system they're dubbing 'pandemic drones'.
Using a specialised sensor and computer vision system, the drones can detect health symptoms such as monitor temperature, heart and respiratory rates. Perhaps concerningly, it can also tell if someone is sneezing or coughing in a crowd as well as offices, airports, cruise ships, aged care homes and workplaces.
"The aim of the technology is to support surveillance of the human landscape, watching for potential [coronavirus] cases, gathering statistics and mapping," Professor Chahl said to Gizmodo Australia over email.
"What we want is detection at the very early stages. We are all now aware of how dangerous undetected exponential growth is."
What's not clear right now is how the technology, once developed and made available, will be able to alert authorities. Professor Chahl said it was not intended as a policing tool and would not be used to identify individual people.
"We will be applying advanced pattern recognition in the future to improve sensitivity, but we are not looking to identify people," Professor Chahl said to Gizmodo Australia.
"I can think of only one reason that comes close to identifying people, which is to connect diagnosis to symptoms that have been remotely sensed. That can be done without identifying the people or trying to retain identifying features.
"We definitely don't see this as a policing tool."
The development team said in a press release it intends to integrate and deploy the technology once up and running for government, medical and commercial customers. It's that last part that's probably a bit of a worry for some of us. Gizmodo Australia also asked what commercial parties it identified as potentially having use for the technology.
Before it was considered for coronavirus tracking, the drone technology was intended for a broad spectrum of situations from war zones to natural disasters to monitoring the hearts of premature babies. Professor Chahl said it would now be focused on assisting the global health crisis.
"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," Professor Chahl said in the initial press release.
Gizmodo Australia also contacted to Electronic Frontiers Australia to understand the concerns of such technology from a citizen perspective.
If you know of any technologies being considered, or used, to track the coronavirus outbreak in Australia, get in touch by email via [email protected]
This article was updated on March 26 to include Professor Chahl's comments to Gizmodo Australia.
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