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Using Drones to Monitor Social Distancing is Now a Thing – is That Creepy?

News and Commentary.  Drones equipped with loudspeaker systems are now being commonly used in the Covid-19 crisis to monitor communities for compliance to public safety orders – but some readers complain that being watched by police from the air is just plain “creepy.”

The FAA says it is investigating a “Volunteer Drone Task Force” flying over Manhattan parks to remind people of social distancing.  While that drone isn’t operated by public safety officials, the idea has been embraced in other U.S. cities and around the world.  Police in Daytona Beach, Florida were the first in the U.S. to use drones to disperse crowds: the method allows police to maintain a safe distance and protect themselves from infection, while providing a gentle reminder to maintain appropriate space.  According to a report in The Hill, police in Savannah, Georgia will also use drones to enforce social distancing: “We are in the middle of a crisis. We’re on our peak time frame and we’re serious about social distancing. The reason why we have so many cases we have is because, two weeks ago people felt that life was normal. It is not normal,” Van Johnson, mayor of Savannah, said.

In Massachusetts, the local ABC news channel reports that police in their state are also considering using drones to monitor social distancing, saying that during the Covid-19 crisis, the benefits of the technology must be weighed against any privacy concerns.  In Connecticut, the Hartford Courant reports, police in some communities will use drone in public parks to enforce distancing.  New Jersey also has announced plans to launch a drone announcement program.

Police have already adopted drones as a tool to monitor communities around the world.  In Germany, Kazakhstan, China, France, and other countries, drones are flying near to crowds and playing recorded messages.

These drones can play a useful – and safe – role in ensuring that people adhere to health guidelines during the Covid-19 crisis.  Used legally and appropriately, they protect both public safety officers and the public.  The tone of the messages, however, may make a difference to how these drones are received.  As DRONELIFE reports on the use of drones for community monitoring, email comments from readers make a common point: the word “creepy” appears in almost every message: the idea of being observed from the air is uncomfortable for many citizens.  In these extreme times, police should ensure that they are transparent and communicative about the use of this new tool – so that drones are seen as “useful”, rather than the “creepy.”

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