WESTPORT, Conn. (WTNH) — Westport was one of the first towns to be struck by the COVID-19 pandemic in Connecticut. The police department initially tested a “pandemic drone” that measures social distancing and can detect fevers, heart rate, and other vital signs. But after careful consideration and push back from residents, the department decided not to use the drones.
According to Draganfly, the Canadian-based company that developed the “pandemic drone,” the machine can measure whether people are social distancing down to how far apart they stand.
Anything closer than six feet and circles that highlight and surround individuals change from green to bright red. The drones are also able to sense breathing and heart rates, detect coughing, and even fever. One test flight showed the drone flying above Trader Joe’s on Post Road East in Westport.
Some protesters worried that it could be an invasion of privacy.
“This is about what type of society we want to live in,” said Michael Picard, of South Windsor.
He and three other protesters held signs in front of the Westport Police Department on Wednesday.
“I’m absolutely very sensitive to privacy issues,” said Police Chief Foti Koskinas. “There shouldn’t be a police chief or anybody who’s sitting in my seat with everything that’s going on right now, not looking for a way to do things differently.”
Koskinas said the drone, which is part of a pilot program, can help officers assess areas where they may need to beef up police presence. Draganfly CEO Cameron Chell insists the data is collected anonymously.
“The system is designed to provide health monitoring data and to be able to give us better data to make more clear decisions,” he said.
Web Extra: Westport Police test “pandemic drone” amid protests
Though Westport is one of the earliest adopters of the new technology, in mid-April, Meriden began using a standard police drone to monitor social distancing in Hubbard Park. That move was met with mixed reviews.
“When government uses drones to surveil its own people, you know we live in a police state,” said protester Picard.
Policing experts said while privacy is part of the testing phase for this new project, it might take high tech to begin safely reopening cities and towns.
“All of those concerns need to be part of the assessment of whether this technology can help us in the future,” said former Fairfield Police Chief Gary MacNamara. “But doing nothing and not exploring technology is not an option. We have to look at better ways in which we can avoid just shutting down our entire society.”
Thursday, Chief Koskinas announced that after careful consideration and collaboration with First Selectman Jim Marpe, “the Westport Police Department has chosen not to participate in the Draganfly drone ‘Flatten the Curve’ Pilot Program.”
The Department’s recent announcement of its plan to partner and participate in a test of new drone technology has resulted in varied expressions of public concern and reservations. To those who have reached out directly to the police department, to the Selectman’s office or otherwise made public these questions or concerns, we sincerely thank you for your continued community engagement and seek to assure you that your voices have been heard.
First Selectman Marpe said, “In our good-faith effort to get ahead of the virus and potential need to manage and safely monitor crowds and social distancing in this environment, our announcement was perhaps misinterpreted, not well-received, and posed many additional questions. We heard and respect your concerns, and are therefore stepping back and re-considering the full impact of the technology and its use in law enforcement protocol.”
Chief Koskinas added, “I am always committed to bringing our community the most innovative solutions to the public safety problems that it faces. Although I see the greater potential of this technology, I will always be responsive and respectful of the concerns of our citizens in every decision that I make. It is a fact that the COVID-19 virus continues to spread through the global community, and therefore poses a serious and credible threat to us all now and in the future. In our steadfast commitment to public service, we remain honored to have been given an opportunity to assist in a pilot program, which could someday prove to be a valuable lifesaving tool. We thank Draganfly for offering the pilot program to Westport and sincerely hope to be included in future innovations once we are convinced the program is appropriate for Westport.”
The Westport Police Department has always made public safety its primary focus while simultaneously respecting the civil liberties of our residents and visitors. We remain steadfast in honoring this commitment.– Westport Police Department