The Drones Were Ready for This Moment

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The Drones Were Ready for This Moment

New Yorkers strolling along the East River early last month glanced up to see an unsettling sight: a mysterious drone claiming to represent something called the “Anti-Covid-19 Volunteer Drone Task Force” barking orders to pedestrians below to maintain social distancing.

“Please maintain a social distance of at least six feet,” the drone intoned, according to a report from CBS News, continuing with gloomy warnings, like “please help stop the spread of this virus” and “reduce the death toll and help save lives.”

It wasn’t a police drone. Was it a vigilante drone or an aerial white knight? Was it friend or foe?

That’s a highly relevant question about drones in general, which are suddenly everywhere during the coronavirus crisis, taking over any number of human tasks as people hunker indoors.

Coronavirus has been devastating to humans, but may well prove a decisive step toward a long-prophesied Drone Age, when aerial robots begin to shed their Orwellian image as tools of war and surveillance and become a common feature of daily life, serving as helpers and, perhaps soon, companions.

First, however, we’ll have to get past the fears of an actual robopocalypse, with robots of the sky rising up to take over while their wetware-enabled former masters huddle in fear below.

“Yes auntie, this is the drone speaking to you,” said one drone, speaking to an elderly woman below in an eerie bullhorn echo, according to a video published by Global Times, a state-controlled newspaper. “You shouldn’t walk about without wearing a mask.”

Global Times also published an account of another drone. A voice from above castigated a small child peering skyward while seated with a man who was violating quarantine rules by playing mahjong in public: “Don’t look at the drone, child. Ask your father to leave immediately.”

The idea of a government eye in the sky doesn’t always play so well in the United States, where personal liberty is a founding precept taken very seriously in many regions.

“Did the drone fly over blueprints for a light saber?” another commenter fired back. “Not everything is a conspiracy.”

“The big concern is that the coronavirus crisis is going to normalize drones and entrench them in American life,” said Jay Stanley, a privacy and technology specialist for the A.C.L.U. “The fear is many of these incursions on freedom will outlast the crisis.”

Drones have other uses besides snooping, of course. They have stepped (or soared) up as aerial virus blasters, with authorities in countries around the world — China, Dubai, Indonesia, France, as well as the United States — using them to sanitize city streets.

(It’s up to you to decide if government drones spraying cities for pathogens sounds creepy.)

Drones are also performing crucial roles on the medical front lines that may be described as humanitarian … if they were performed by humans.

Zipline’s fixed-wing drones have already made 30,600 deliveries of medical products in those countries since the start of the pandemic, the company said: lately delivering cancer drugs, for example, to patients in remote villages who are unable to travel to oncology centers because of quarantine.

“Zipline are the heroes of drone delivery,” Ms. McNabb said. “In parts of Rwanda, where road infrastructure doesn’t support delivery, it’s either three days on the back of a motorbike or 15 minutes by drone.”

In the United States they are at last delivering more quotidian consumer items too, as long dreamed by Jeff Bezos of Amazon.

Wing’s home deliveries of medications from Walgreens have proved particularly popular with quarantined seniors who are most at risk, said Jonathan Bass, a Wing spokesman.

“It’s one of the few emerging technologies that has attracted a lot of early adopters over the age of 65,” he said.

But Wing is also starting to out-Amazon Amazon, delivering must-have items like toilet paper and groceries. Merchandise is kept at a central Wing facility, and orders can be made through the Wing app, which allows customers to chart progress of their drone on a map, as with Uber or Lyft.

While useful for temporary shut-ins, drone delivery has served as a lifeline for small businesses dealing with a collapse in foot traffic.

“The first two weeks after Covid hit were rough; it felt like somebody put the e-brake on,” said Luke Brugh — conveniently pronounced “brew,” as he owns Brugh Coffee Co. in Christiansburg with his wife, Cassie. Wing, he said, has allowed them to double the sales of canned cold brew, which has helped make up for the loss.

And this may just be the beginning. Just as World War II hurried the development of emerging technologies like computers, rocketry, jet aircraft and atomic energy, the pandemic may speed the development, and adoption of, drone technology.

“Of course, this could also accelerate future job losses,” he said, “which is something we’d have to deal with down the road.”

And it also may prove to be one of many examples of the pandemic helping to make drones seem more endearing.

“Drones sell this idea of emptiness, this lack of life better than anything,” said Dexter Kennedy, 29, a drone photographer in Hoboken, N.J., who has been shooting aerial footage of abandoned streets in Philadelphia, as well as the empty boardwalks of Atlantic City and Jersey City during the lockdown.

“You get 100 feet up and you can really see the big picture,” Mr. Kennedy said. “A boardwalk that would normally have thousands of people on it is totally empty. All the rides are empty. The Ferris wheel is not moving. You can see the grid patterns of the street, but no one’s out. It looks like an apocalypse movie.”

Mr. Kennedy sees a big expansion of drone duties in Hollywood, should suspended productions resume with new social distancing measures in place. Drones can perform location scouting remotely, he said, minimize the need for crew members to share camera equipment and even allow a director to orchestrate aerial scenes from home, with a remote feed.

“Up to this point, drones have been kind of a luxury for Hollywood,” Mr. Kennedy said. “Now I think they’re moving into the ‘necessity’ category.”

As drones work their way further into the dream factory of Hollywood, they may also insinuate themselves further into our imagination.

If and when the pandemic ever ends, we may develop an unimagined kinship with our aerial assistants, just as we have with other types of robots.

Granted, he said, the marketplace has shown little interest in robots that do not perform valuable tasks. “It’s not enough for a robot to be cute or inspirational, it has to solve a problem before people will fall in love,” Mr. Wilson said.

In a sense, they have no choice. As with drones in the age of coronavirus, Mr. Wilson said, “the robots aren’t going anywhere.”

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