A California police department is reportedly planning on using Chinese-made drones to monitor the coronavirus shutdown, reported the Financial Times on 20 March.
The Chula Vista Police Department recently acquired two $11,000 drones equipped with night-vision cameras and loudspeakers from Chinese company DJI – a leading manufacturer of commercial unmanned aerial vehicles.
The Police department first started using drones for emergency situations in October 2018, and is now doubling its fleet.
“We have not traditionally mounted speakers on our drones, but ... if we need to cover a large area to get an announcement out, or if there were a crowd somewhere that we needed to disperse, we could do it without getting police officers involved… The outbreak has changed my view of expanding the program as rapidly as I can,” Capt. Vern Sallee was quoted as saying.
The official added that drones would also come in handy for spreading the message about the severity of the coronavirus to those who have no other means of receiving information, such as the homeless population in the city.
“We need to tell them we actually have resources for them — they are vulnerable right now. It might be impractical or unsafe for our officers to be put into those areas,” added Sallee.
Sallee, who has been working with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to increase drone usage amidst the pandemic, was cited by the outlet as saying:
“This crisis could be a catalyst to spur the FAA to free up resources faster.”
Amidst the current volatile situation, US drone companies have been urged to step up to the task, as Spencer Gore, chief executive of US-based drone company Impossible Aerospace, said he is “working like crazy” to outfit other law enforcement agencies with drones based on hardware that is made domestically.
“What we saw in China, and what we're probably going to see around the world, is using drones with cameras and loudspeakers to fly around to see if people are gathering where they shouldn't be, and telling them to go home. It seems a little Orwellian, but this could save lives,” Gore said.
Perceived Cybersecurity Threat
This comes as US officials have persistently warned that Chinese-made drones could pose a threat to the United States.
The US Department of the Interior (DOI) temporarily grounded its fleet of over 800 drones on 29 January, citing perceived cybersecurity risks.
Interior Secretary David Bernhardt signed an open-ended order formalising a "pause" he'd ordered nearly three months earlier, saying that information collected during drone flights could be "valuable to foreign entities, organisations, and governments".
The Chinese drone giant DJI in response issued a statement saying it was "extremely disappointed" by the Interior Department's decision.
"We are opposed to the politically-motivated country of origin restrictions masquerading as cybersecurity concerns," DJI said in a statement published on its website.
The move by the DOI came just months after earlier validating the Chinese company’s "high-security" drones during a 15-month testing period.
The DOI uses a fleet of 810 drones with at least 15 per cent manufactured entirely by Shenzhen-based DJI, while the remainder are all made in China or contain China-made parts, wrote Fortune.
The Chinese company DJI has a global monopoly in drone manufacturing. In 2018 it wielded a 74 percent share of the world market in commercial unmanned aerial vehicles, with French, Dutch, German, and UK military and police units widely using their machines for missions of observation and inspection.
The developments come as cases of the COVID-19 coronavirus respiratory disease have increased dramatically across the US.
On Monday, US Surgeon General Jerome Adams warned that the coronavirus pandemic was " going to get bad" this week, with some states adopting a string of stringent measures to curb the spread, including the closure of all nonessential businesses.
There have been more than 46,400 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the US, with the death toll currently at 590, according to the latest reading by the Johns Hopkins University tracker.