How drones could help the fight against pandemics

Research involving UND is testing three ways drones can help reduce viral spread

Image courtesy of SkySkopes, Inc.

The University of North Dakota’s Center for Innovation and Research Institute for Autonomous Systems (RIAS) are partnering in a coalition of unmanned aerial system (UAS) industry leaders to develop new mission sets against future pandemics.

Flight tests operated by Grand Forks-based drone service provider SkySkopes are underway in Grand Forks County to test the abilities of drones to spray disinfectants, deliver priority supplies, and sense body temperatures remotely.

North Dakota State University is also on-board with the project, providing an aircraft originally developed for agricultural spraying applications.

“I have not seen a partnership like this before, and we have a mission set like I’ve never seen before,” said Matt Dunlevy, President and CEO of SkySkopes.

Coordinated response

Amy Whitney

Amy Whitney, director of the Center for Innovation at UND, said the purpose of the mission is to test each application – spray, deliver and sense – individually, as well as measure the aggregate impact of all three as a coordinated emergency response to a pandemic. The project has been made possible through the Center for Innovation’s Dahl, Melroe and Nash faculty entrepreneur research fund.

“We’re in a crisis where we’re having to make behavioral changes,” Whitney said. “Autonomous systems can help us accomplish daily life tasks in a way that helps protect public and individual health, while also bringing resources to locations where movement is restricted.

“In addition, the technology can help us identify hazards in the environment that we may not be able to see with our own eyes, much like the spread of COVID-19.”

Good news

In the “Good News” portion of his daily COVID-19 response briefing on April 21, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum gave a high-profile shout-out to UND, SkySkopes and their collaborators for the high-tech approach.

“They have got some ideas about how UAVs might help spray water and disinfectant to stop and kill the virus and understand how drones might deliver medical supplies or they could also be used in trying to detect health issues,” Burgum said. “Those are some great examples and some great innovations of how UAS can be used in a health component.”

The governor lauded the private-public innovation as a big reason why North Dakota is a leader in the UAS industry.

Benefitting communities

Mark Askelson

Executive Director of RIAS, Mark Askelson, drew attention to the fact that, while flights for upcoming tests will be taking place within line of sight in accordance with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations, the use of HUBNet’s detect-and-avoid technology can enhance the safety of operating multiple aircraft in the same airspace. The continual construction of a safety case for drones’ use on a broad scale is crucial for the UAS industry.

Askelson remarked that if spraying is proven to be effective against viral outbreaks, and drones can also be used to retrieve and deliver crucial medical supplies, autonomous systems could “completely change the game” for public health by lowering the risk of spreading infections.

During testing, a drone equipped with a sprayer will test dispensing non-toxic substances such as soapy water and other generic disinfectants at low altitudes.

“We’re learning how we can do these things to benefit a community in a pandemic like this, but also we’re learning more about how to create safer airspace for these advanced systems,” Askelson said. “This would help us understand how we might use these technologies to really make a difference.

“We are very fortunate to be in a place where we have the ecosystem, leadership and partnerships that we need to work problems like this.”

Coordinated Mission Set

Matt Dunlevy

Matt Dunlevy

Whitney said the endeavor allows UND and the Grand Forks region to continue its leadership in the UAS industry sector. As the business incubator that helped SkySkopes grow into a global drone service provider, the Center for Innovation is also interested in business opportunities that can positively impact public health in the long term, including establishing a statewide network for drone flight.

“This demonstration enables us to explore coordination of UAS missions in response to a crisis,” said Askelson. “Such coordination could prove extremely valuable in future pandemics.”

“We hope we are able to show that UAS are another tool in the toolbox for the country,” Dunlevy said. “And I think that if we do find something, it’s fitting that it comes out of the state of North Dakota.”