How COVID-19 Pandemic May Boost Use of Robots & Drones

Security personnel can manage risk by leveraging the ability of machines to conduct patrols without the use of personal protection equipment such as facemasks.

How COVID-19 Pandemic May Boost Use of Robots & Drones

Robots and drones, it has often been said, are best used for tasks that are “dull, dirty or dangerous.”With virtually all proximity to other people now considered dangerous because of COVID-19 — and with businesses, institutions and governments looking to accomplish tasks in ways that minimize physically close human interaction — the use of robots and drones may increase.

Even before the coronavirus shut down most of the United States, though, the automated sector of the security industry was growing. In late 2018, the Security Industry Association (SIA) released a report produced by research firm IDC that projected the worldwide market for security robotics is expected to grow by 20% a year to total $2.8 billion by 2023.

IDC also cited survey results that found that “the top use case for robots across non-manufacturing industries surveyed is security, with over 40% of all respondents indicating that they are using or planning to use robots for security.”

Prior to ISC West being postponed this year, the number of exhibitors in the Drones and Robotics Pavilion was expected to grow by nearly 50% over last year. One of the first-time exhibitors in the pavilion was to be the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Science & Technology Directorate.

Another IDC paper on robots, drones and related technologies released by SIA last year suggested that “the security industry is facing an inflection point as modern digital technology is delivering advanced and disruptive capabilities.”

With society facing unprecedented peace-time disruptions, those disruptive technologies may actually help to maintain some degree of normalcy.

Security personnel cannot quarantine or shelter in place for an entire shift, but they can manage risk by leveraging the ability of machines to conduct patrols without fear or facemask. The information provided by the cameras and other sensors with which an automated device is equipped enables human security officers to maintain situational awareness, communicate with people remotely and limit face-to-face encounters to those incidents that truly require it.

And automated devices, especially now, can have safety applications, in addition to security. At the few sites that still have significant numbers of people, ground-based robots can help enforce social distancing — several news outlets have reported that Tunisian authorities have deployed robots to the streets of Tunis to confront people who violate the lockdown — as well as provide other technological solutions to containing the outbreak.

An article in the March 25 edition of Science Robotics states:

For diagnosis and screening, mobile robots for temperature measurement in public areas and ports of entry represent a practical use of mature technologies. Automated camera systems are commonly used to screen multiple people simultaneously in large areas. Incorporating these thermal sensors and vision algorithms onto autonomous or remotely operated robots could increase the efficiency and coverage of screening. These mobile robots could also be used to repeatedly monitor temperatures of in/outpatients in various areas of the hospitals with data linked to hospital information systems. By networking existing security systems with facial recognition software, it is possible to re-trace contacts of infected individuals to alert others who might be at risk of infection. It is important, however, to introduce appropriate rules to respect privacy.

As noted in the article, users of these technologies must ensure that they comply with laws and regulations, including, but not limited to, the privacy requirements of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) when in a healthcare environment.

With drones, practitioners must abide by, among other requirements, the rules of the FAA, including its mandate that commercial drone pilots have Part 107 certificates.

The challenging conditions of recent weeks have highlighted the benefits provided by robots and drones. But even after the curve is flattened and pre-pandemic life returns, those benefits to security professionals — enhanced situational awareness, increased standoff distance and force-multiplying technological capabilities, among them — will remain.


Ron Hawkins, SIA Director of Industry Relations, is staff liaison for the Drones and Robotics Working Group.

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