Chinese companies Draganfly and DJI offered to loan drones to fight the pandemic in a bid to expand their reach. 

Chinese Drone Companies Loan Units for COVID-19 Surveillance

This story may give you pause and maybe a small shudder, because it’s about pushing the envelope in drone surveillance.

We found the story of free drones being given to an assortment of police departments across the nation on, written by Georgia Gee. Drones are becoming part of our daily lives whether we are aware of them or not. Soon drones will be delivering your packages from Amazon and others. However, this story isn’t about package delivery.

Due to the pandemic, company executives at Draganfly and DJI were trying to increase sales. They figured that leveraging pandemic needs would be a smart move—by weaponizing drones to check on the spread of coronavirus.

In April 2020, as COVID-19 cases exploded across the U.S. and local officials scrambled for solutions, a police department in Connecticut tried a new way to monitor the spread of the virus. One morning, as masked shoppers lined up 6 feet apart outside Trader Joe’s in Westport, the police department flew a drone overhead to observe their social distancing and detect potential coronavirus symptoms: high temperature and increased heart rate.

According to internal emails, the captain flying the mission wanted to “take advantage” of the store’s line. But the store had no notification about the flight, and neither did the customers on their grocery runs, even though the drone technology managed to track figures both inside and outside. The drone program was unveiled a week later when the department announced its “Flatten the Curve Pilot Program” in collaboration with the Canadian drone company Draganfly, which was due to last through the summer.

Less than 48 hours later after the program’s public unveiling, the police department was forced to suspend it because of an “intense backlash” from Westport residents. Unlike Chinese residents, Americans object to being tracked from the sky and can do something about it without retaliation.

“To have my vitals monitored by drones without my knowledge or permission is beyond words,” wrote one alarmed resident in an email to the county government. “This is straight out of an Orwellian nightmare.”

The Westport Police Department is one of multiple U.S. law enforcement agencies that got free drones from the companies to combat COVID-19. An investigation by the Documenting COVID-19 project at Columbia University’s Brown Institute for Media Innovation in collaboration with Slate shows how police departments in several states were loaned surveillance tech from Draganfly and DJI, which sought to expand their reach in the lucrative U.S. market.

Emails obtained by FOIA requests show that agencies received drones fitted with thermal cameras and intercoms to disperse crowds, broadcast coronavirus information to homeless populations, and, in some cases, monitor health vitals. Other agencies have turned down DJI’s drone technology, speculating that the data was being sent back to China—a concern that triggered FBI interest.

Are you interested or somewhat terrified yet? Well, read on.

In emails on the proposed rollout of Westport’s drone program—which included tracking train commuters and park-goers—Draganfly and the police department agreed to blur faces in the drone footage. Westport Police Chief Foti Koskinas wrote, “as long as we stay away from facial recognition and stay on top of rather than away from privacy issues we should be good.”

“Yet despite the company’s commitment to blur the drone footage, its promotional videos are shot at very low altitudes in which you can clearly see individuals’ features. Indeed, Draganfly briefly used footage of the Trader Joe’s test in a promotional video. Furthermore, as Faine Greenwood wrote for Future Tense in May, Draganfly’s technology had only been tested in controlled, experimental settings—not real-world environments with moving people. There is no actual evidence that fever-detecting drones actually work. Emails indicate that the drone did pick up shoppers’ temperatures, though they don’t say anything about confirming the accuracy. The drone also couldn’t gauge heart or respiratory rates, as shoppers were wearing masks.”

In addition to Draganfly, Da Jiang Innovations (DJI), a Chinese-owned company and the largest seller of commercial drones in the U.S., launched its Disaster Relief Program in 2019 for public safety agencies beset by emergencies such as tornadoes and floods. In April 2020, DJI invited law enforcement agencies registered with the FAA to apply for additional drones for coronavirus response. DJI said it received several hundred responses from police departments, fire departments and state patrols to “observe their county’s testing sites or reach their homeless populations using speaker-equipped drones.” The company offered 100 Mavic 2 Enterprise drones to 45  agencies. Not all accepted, but most did.

We have shared stories of drone intrusions previously, which demonstrate the devastating weapons “war drones” are equipped with. We have seen the amazing sky portraits that moved over the last Chinese Olympics and other major outdoor events. However, this article shows that drones are moving into the realm of invasion of privacy, especially when people are unaware of what’s going on.