Westport first town in CT to use drones to fight coronavirus

WESTPORT — As the town prepares to be the first in the state to launch an aggressive community surveillance campaign with drone technology in the fight against COVID-19, the ACLU has raised privacy concerns.

“This pandemic has opened up a new frontier and urgent need for the use of drones,” Police Chief Foti Koskinas said Tuesday. “Using drones remains a go-to technology for reaching remote areas with little to no manpower required. Because of this technology, our officers will have the information and quality data they need to make the best decision in any given situation.”

One of the major problems in managing and responding to a pandemic is determining how wide the disease has spread and protecting first responders, according to Koskinas.

He said the drone software uses biometric readings to understand population patterns and allows quicker reaction time to ongoing events or potential health threats.

“The goal is to provide better health monitoring support for potential at-risk groups, including seniors, as well as for gathering crowds at beaches, train stations, parks and recreation areas and shopping centers,” he said.

Koskinas said it will not be used in individual private yards, nor does it employ facial recognition technology.

David McGuire, executive director of the ACLU of Connecticut, said he recognizes that COVID-19 is a grave public health risk, and innovative tools should be considered to help mitigate the problem.

But, he said, “technology is no magic pill to stemming the pandemic.”

“Towns and the state should be wary of self-interested, privacy-invading companies using COVID-19 as a chance to market their products and create future business opportunities,” he said.

“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, 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,” he said.

While drone technology has been used to fight the pandemic in the U.S. and around the world since late March, it has not yet been used in Connecticut.

Westport was an early epicenter in the state for the virus, with many cases connected with a party that was held at a home in town and attended by at least 100 people on March 5. As of Tuesday, Westport had 198 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and one person who died with the virus.

The town is partnering with Draganfly, a health care data service, and the University of South Australia in testing the technology here.

“The Westport Police Department is one of the most progressive public safety agencies in the nation and real pioneers when it comes to adopting and integrating new technology to enhance the safety of their citizens and first responders,” said Cameron Chell, CEO of Draganfly. “This coronavirus pandemic has opened up a new frontier for advanced drones. In conjunction with our partners, including the town of Westport, together we are the first in the U.S. to implement this state-of-the-art technology to analyze data in a way that has been peer reviewed and clinically researched to save lives.”