Fighting COVID-19 with Disinfecting Drones and Thermal Sensors
Jessica Zimmer posted on June 12, 2020 |
SkyScopes is testing the use of drones to spray disinfectants.
(Image courtesy of SkySkopes.)
(Image courtesy of SkySkopes.)

Unmanned aerial systems (UAS), also more commonly known as drones, are being studied as tools to fight the novel coronavirus. The UAS will be used to disinfect large public areas and to deliver supplies. In Grand Forks, N. Dak., SkySkopes, a UAS flight operator that serves a wide variety of industries; the Center for Innovation at the University of North Dakota (UND); and a number of other companies are engaged in a study to determine how drones can be used to accomplish these tasks.

SkySkopes is also testing the use of thermal sensors that are positioned in stationary locations above research participants. The sensors detect elevated temperatures and help ensure that an individual is healthy enough to return to work.

(Image courtesy of SkySkopes.)
(Image courtesy of SkySkopes.)

Like Syracuse-based drone startup EagleHawk, SkySkopes is determining what methods can be used to disperse disinfectant effectively and on a large scale. Since mid-March, the company has been making test runs, spraying public playgrounds using nozzles and tanks. The only substance SkySkopes has sprayed outdoors is water. When its UAS have been used indoors, they have sprayed a solution of 3 percent hydrogen peroxide and 97 percent water.

SkySkopes is also developing procedures for drone pilots and visual observers to travel to and from a site, and to clean instruments before, during and after use, and take measures to inform and protect the public.

SkySkopes CEO Matt Dunlevy said that reconsidering the use of drones during the pandemic requires identifying new precautions and protocols.

“One of our biggest questions is what we will need to do to discourage crowds who want to observe our work from forming. We do not want to exacerbate community spread as we disinfect public spaces,” said Dunlevy.

Dunlevy added that while playgrounds are not the only target site being considered,  they are good locations to conduct research.

“We’re using them to learn how to disinfect many other objects and areas, including vehicles, the outsides of different types of buildings, park equipment, and indoor spaces such as movie theaters and gymnasiums,” said Dunlevy.

Fortunately, playgrounds are ideal for study because they contain a number of complex elements that can indicate how to tackle similar areas in other outdoor workplaces. For instance, SkySkopes has a number of clients in the energy industry, where ladders and platforms are present, and crowds are unavoidable for project executions.

Equipment Involved in the Study

The drones utilized in the study include the MFD 5000 from Watts Innovation, the Agras MG-1 from DJI, and M6A PRO G200 with a 16-liter tank from Homeland Surveillance & Electronics. North Dakota State University is lending SkySkopes the M6A PRO G200.

“Each drone has its unique advantages. The MFD 5000 is extremely customizable. The MG-1 is water-resistant and a “tried and true” (tool) for precise agricultural spraying,” said Dunlevy.

For example, the M6A PRO G200 is designed specifically for crop dusting and spraying.

Dunlevy explained that smaller areas could be disinfected with a single payload of liquid carried on the drone and released by “one fell swoop” of a drone pilot. Larger areas could be disinfected with liquid drawn from a tank on the ground by an assistant, carried to the drone by a tube, and sprayed out of a nozzle attached to the tube. A tank-and-hose combination could also be effective at disinfecting the underside of elements like monkey bars. The drone could fly under the play structure and turn the nozzle to spray disinfect upwards.

Currently, SkySkopes is running thermal sensor tests with Infrared Cameras Inc.’s Optical Gas Imaging camera, which is made with components by FLIR Systems, Inc., on DJI’s Zenmuse XT. SkySkopes expects real-life use of the sensors could involve mounting the device on the wall of a hospital or care facility, with an employee standing under the device to take a reading.

“Right now, we’re just testing out use of that on the ground. We’re only testing it on SkySkopes employees and research participants. As for nozzles for drone spraying, we’re testing out a combination of different spray nozzles and tanks. We’re borrowing heavily from already-proven techniques in agriculture,” said Dunlevy.

Mark Askelson, a professor of atmospheric sciences and executive director of the Research Institute for Autonomous Systems (RIAS) at the University of North Dakota, is assisting with the study.

Askelson said the studies indicate that a spray of very small drops of disinfecting liquid would likely limit the fluid’s ability to kill the virus.

“The smaller the droplet, the faster it evaporates. That’s the reason SkySkopes is out there under different conditions to determine how drop size, wind speed, and direction affect coverage,” said Askelson.

Askelson noted that determining the “residence time” of droplets of cleaning fluid is important to determine whether the drops stay on the surface of an object long enough to kill the virus.

Helping UAS Operators Stay in Business

Dunlevy said the SkySkopes-UND study is critical to helping UAS flight companies find new markets and develop the industry.

“UAS flight operators stayed open because UAS is considered an essential service. But many of their customers closed during the early months of the pandemic. Now, even with partial reopening, business is down. Finding out what drones can do gives UAS operators an opportunity to gain new clients,” said Dunlevy.

Dunlevy noted that the study also allows SkySkopes to show what can be accomplished with repeated gathering of flight data from drone missions.

“Using the data we collect, we are able to fine-tune the optimal flight paths and patterns for missions. That way, we can shorten the mission time and find ways to do the job more effectively,” said Dunlevy.

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