Drones Take to China’s Skies to Fight Coronavirus Outbreak

(Bloomberg) -- In coronavirus-hit China, not wearing a face mask is a big no-no. Now, drones equipped with loudspeakers are out admonishing those who fail to follow public-health safety practices.

On microblogging platform Weibo, a video posted by Zhejiang News’s broadcasting channel shows a drone take off and scan the ground below for violators.

In one scene, it identifies an elderly woman who isn’t wearing a face mask. “Can’t you see? I’m talking about you. Put your face mask on and go home right away,” a polite but firm voice from the drone says. The woman seems confused at first, repeatedly glancing up at the hovering machine, then she puts on her mask and scurries back to her apartment building.

Footage posted by Global Times shows people in rural China publicly shamed by a drone for not wearing a face mask or for venturing outside unnecessarily. It’s unclear who created the segments.

“Isn’t it comfortable to stay at home, with food and drinks?” a voice asks a farmer out in the fields in Inner Mongolia. “You didn’t even wear a mask.” The farmer smiles, to which the drone responds that it’s not funny, adding: “Don’t come outside if not necessary.”

Drones Take to China’s Skies to Fight Coronavirus Outbreak

Drones are being pressed into service as China looks to stem the spread of the coronavirus, which has infected more than 20,000 across the world’s most populous nation. Many online appreciate the comedic relief these clips bring at a troubling time, as well as the practical use of technology to access remote parts of the country. Skeptics though see it as further evidence of a clamp down on individual freedoms.

The drones aren’t just policing mask offenders -- reports from Chinese media have them deployed in everything from construction to farming.

Guangzhou-based agriculture drone manufacturer XAG is working to deploy a fleet of drones that can spray disinfectant on affected areas such as bus and train stations and other public spaces. Co-founder Justin Gong said the company had set up a 5 million yuan ($715,000) fund for volunteer teams around the country, including in Hubei, the epicenter of the outbreak.

Gong said using drones for the purpose of enforcing public-health practices wasn’t ideal. “It definitely will call attention, which is good PR. But for efficiency, it’s not as good as spraying.”

China has pioneered the widespread use of technology including cameras and facial recognition to keep tabs on citizens’ behavior, doling out fines for misdemeanors such as jaywalking and other traffic violations. Its public security bureau is estimated to own about 30 million surveillance cameras.

A government drone was tested in Chengdu in Sichuan province, to disperse a group of elders playing mahjong. In Shanghai, drones have been used to supervise traffic while in Wuhan they provided much needed night light for hospital construction.

A Twitter post from state media People’s Daily shows a drone measuring the temperature of residents in a high-rise apartment building in Jiangxi province.

“Most western citizens might freak out about this because of privacy concerns,” said Mark Tanner, managing director of Shanghai-based tech consultancy firm China Skinny. “In China, people are so used to surveillance they might not react as strongly.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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