Connecticut town tests 'pandemic drone' to find fevers. Experts question if it would work.

Police in Westport said the drone would "provide better health monitoring support for potential at-risk groups," and would not be used to observe people in private yards.
A police drone in Westport, Conn.
A police drone in Westport, Conn.NBC Connecticut

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
SUBSCRIBE
By Minyvonne Burke

A Connecticut police department said it plans to begin testing a "pandemic drone" that could detect whether a person 190 feet away has a fever or is coughing.

But an expert on viruses and a privacy advocate question whether such technology can work and, if it does, whether it would help in controlling the spread of the coronavirus.

The Westport Police Department and the town's top elected official, First Selectman Jim Marpe, said the goal is to use the technology as part of a pilot program to "flatten the curve" of the pandemic.

"We know that social distancing is working to flatten the curve and ultimately saving lives," Marpe said in a statement. "In an effort to continue safeguarding the citizens of Westport during the COVID-19 outbreak, and as we position ourselves to gradually return to our routines, we should explore ways to prevent a possible resurgence of the virus."

He praised the police department for exploring "smart solutions" that can keep residents safe.

Westport, a wealthy community of about 29,000 an hour north of Manhattan, has 198 cases of coronavirus and five deaths.

Connecticut has over 20,300 confirmed cases, with more than 1,400 deaths.

The town's police department said in a release that the drone could help to "provide better health monitoring support for potential at-risk groups," and that it would not be used to monitor people in private yards and does not use facial-recognition technology.

Police Chief Foti Koskinas said one of the biggest obstacles in fighting the virus has been determining how far it has spread in the community, and a drone could help solve that problem.

"Using drones remains a go-to technology for reaching remote areas with little to no manpower required," the police chief said in a statement. "Because of this technology, our officers will have the information and quality data they need to make the best decision in any given situation."

A police spokesman said that during the testing phase of the program no action will be taken if the drone shows that a person has a fever or is coughing. The focus, for now, is to evaluate information from the drone, Lieutenant Anthony Prezioso said.

"If it is determined to be helpful, in the future, a team of policy experts will be organized to initiate a draft of policy and protocol on how, who and when to use the technology," he said.

Prezioso said the drone will not capture or store personal information.

NBC News reached out to Marpe and the company that developed the drone, Draganfly, on Wednesday, but did not immediately hear back.

The company said in a statement that the technology can detect fever, coughing, sneezing and heart and respiratory rates, and that Westport police plan to use it to protect those considered high-risk, such as senior citizens, and monitor people gathering in crowds, including to see if they are maintaining social distancing.

But David McGuire, executive director of the ACLU of Connecticut, cautioned against the use of technology as a way to stop the spread of the coronavirus and said more information is needed about what data the drone will collect and if that data will be stored or sold.

"The COVID-19 virus is a grave public health risk, so we shouldn't write off tools that might help mitigate the problem," he said in a statement. "But we also must recognize that 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."

McGuire also expressed doubt that the drone's technology could accurately detect if a person's symptoms are related to the virus. He noted that some people with the virus are asymptomatic and that others who have a fever or cough may not be infected.

"Even if this drone-based remote system detection technology is accurate, it may not be helpful in stopping the spread of COVID-19," he said.

Dr. Joseph Fair, a virologist and epidemiologist, expressed a similar view to NBC News in March, saying, "Temperature checks are things that we mostly do out of an abundance of caution, but they're mostly a visual measure that makes you feel better."

"It makes you feel like you're going through some kind of screening, but they have very limited effectiveness," he said.

The Westport Police Department launched a drone program in 2016 to help dive teams in locating submerged objects and victims. It later expanded the program for assistance in accident investigations, documentation of scenes and search-and-rescue.