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WKSU, our public radio partners in Ohio and across the region and NPR are all continuing to work on stories on the latest developments with the coronavirus and COVID-19 so that we can keep you informed.

How Drones Are Being Used To Stop The Spread Of COVID-19

An EagleHawk drone sprays disinfectant on seats in Sahlen Field in Buffalo, New York.
Courtesy of EagleHawk
An EagleHawk drone sprays disinfectant on seats in Sahlen Field in Buffalo, New York.

Sanitizing large public spaces in the age of the coronavirus is coming down to drones. It may be a way to get fans in the stands sooner. It also could be an effective way to transport a vaccine to the masses once one becomes available. These and other applications have researchers scrambling to find pandemic-era drone applications.

New York company EagleHawk does large-scale facilities inspections with drones. After some of his business evaporated with COVID-19, CEO Patrick Walsh pivoted to offer disinfecting services to stadiums.

One drone pumps the sanitizing liquid from a hose while the other sprays it on the seats. EagleHawk is testing the system on a New York hockey rink and a minor league baseball stadium.

Walsh says the disinfectant is on an EPA approved list. "We've been looking at products you can apply via spray that you don't have to wipe off and our goal is to use the safest product we can."

However, EagleHawk is leaving the decision of which product to use up to customers. He says many don't want the added expense of using natural ingredients.

Such agricultural sprayers are common in China to clean areas because of COVID-19. Parts of Asia are also using drones to do temperature checks with thermal cameras on drones.

We will see more of these kinds of applications, says  University of Cincinnati Professor Kelly Cohen. The Interim Department Chair of Aerospace Engineering heads up unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) teams at the university. One carried a medical payload to win first place in Ohio.

He says in a pandemic era, UAVs could collect and transmit information and deliver material like vaccines. He looks forward to adapting UC projects to help in the age of the coronavirus. But, he points out, "The universities have a bit of a problem from the point of view there's a stay-at-home order."

Cohen says it's hard to repurpose UAV capabilities and get approval until they can return to campus. But  once they do, it can be done in a very short time. "Having to distribute supplies; having to come up with predictive models; having to deliver PPE; antibody tests as well as vaccines."

Before the pandemic, the UC teams were working with the Air Force Research Lab to study swarming drones to develop a communication system for when cell phones go down. That research will continue and so will efforts to study a UAV air traffic control system at the Springfield airport.

According to the camera drone manufacturer DJI, this is not the first time drones have been implemented in health-related scenarios. "In Tanzania researchers are spraying chemicals on rice fields to prevent Malaria-carrying mosquitoes from reproducing," it says. "And they're being used to deliver critical medical supplies or lab samples in areas without the proper infrastructure."

Copyright 2020 91.7 WVXU. To see more, visit 91.7 WVXU.

With more than 30 years of journalism experience in the Greater Cincinnati market, Ann Thompson brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her reporting. She has reported for WKRC, WCKY, WHIO-TV, Metro Networks and CBS/ABC Radio. Her work has been recognized by the Associated Press and the Society of Professional Journalists. In 2019 and 2011 A-P named her “Best Reporter” for large market radio in Ohio. She has won awards from the Association of Women in Communications and the Alliance for Women in Media. Ann reports regularly on science and technology in Focus on Technology.