Disinfecting Drones to Fight COVID-19? No Thanks, Says Defense Department

A Marine holds up an MK-2 Instant Eye quadcopter unmanned aerial system during exercise Spring Storm 2018, Capu Midia Training Area, Romania, March 10, 2018. (U.S. Marine Corps photo/Austin Livingston)
A Marine holds up an MK-2 Instant Eye quadcopter unmanned aerial system during exercise Spring Storm 2018, Capu Midia Training Area, Romania, March 10, 2018. (U.S. Marine Corps photo/Austin Livingston)

A large container of sanitizer is affixed to a quadcopter drone. Then, it takes flight, spraying down city quarters where groups of people have recently congregated and, in theory, destroying left-behind pathogens before they can spread.

That scene was captured in a video shot in China last month as that government ramped up its coronavirus response, days after the World Health Organization declared a global emergency, with more than 7,700 cases confirmed and a death toll of 170 and counting.

But as cases of the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, continue to rise in the U.S., Defense Department officials said they have no plans to turn drones into disinfecting machines, despite propositions from companies presenting the method as simple and effective.

"The National Guard does not have this capability and is not pursuing it with any other agencies," said Army Maj. Rob Perino, spokesman for the National Guard Bureau.

Related: DoD to Provide 5 Million Masks, 2,000 Ventilators to States From Strategic Reserves

Air and Army National Guard personnel have been called up to assist in coronavirus response efforts in Florida, Iowa, Louisiana, New York, Rhode Island and Washington, the Guard said in a statement last week. Shortly after, New Jersey and Illinois also requested assistance from local units. By Tuesday, those requests grew: The National Guard Bureau said that more than 1,560 Guard members in 22 states are now on duty for coronavirus support. Hours later, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott activated the National Guard as COVID-19 cases continued to increase.

Public affairs officials at U.S. Special Operations Command and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) -- two organizations that explore innovative advancements in warfare -- told Military.com the organizations do not have disinfecting drones and are not seeking to create the capability. The United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases did not respond to request for comment by press time.

The practice of misting disinfectants in large, outdoor spaces has featured heavily in China and South Korea response efforts, but has yet to produce conclusive results.

But staff with the nonprofit group DRONERESPONDERS are interested to see how the method might work in smaller, more enclosed spaces.

DRONERESPONDERS is exploring "all use case options in response to COVID19," according to Charles Werner, director of the program.

"This is to identify ways that drones are being used, how they might be used and the effectiveness of each," Werner said in an email Tuesday. "We have obviously seen that spraying has been done in China and we are exploring the effectiveness and realistic deployment. We are also trying to learn what needs to change to make drones more effective."

While Werner didn't disclose whether the group has pitched the military on these ideas, he said they are "exploring, learning and sharing" as they go.

"We are also working with counterparts overseas as well. This includes use cases, air traffic management and more," he said.

Another organization, Building Momentum, an emerging technologies firm, is planning on testing a high-powered, ultraviolet robot that can be programmed to blast light to kill viruses, according to its founder and CEO Brad Halsey.

UV robots have been adopted by the health care industry to combat bacteria and viruses. For example, Xenex Disinfection Services, a Texas-based company, has created UV robots for medical staff that are in use in more than 500 facilities across the U.S., according to the Jerusalem Post. The company even provided a machine to the Air Force's 633rd Medical Group at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia, during the height of the Ebola outbreak.

But Halsey, a Navy veteran who specialized in explosive ordnance disposal (EOD), said he isn't planning to create a one-size-fits-all robot, but rather one that can be enhanced and tweaked for various germ-fighting tasks, much like configuring an algorithm over and over again until the optimal solution is achieved.

Some machines, for example, are dropped off in a room, "but don't move. It's like trying to spray-paint a building with spray cans 10 feet away," Halsey said. "So the idea of this robot was not just to make a robot, it was to bring the light closer to surfaces, and have it sort of do a 'Roomba' thing, [letting it move] around the edges of a room."

Engineers and experts are giving themselves just one week to create an ad hoc prototype with parts bought from local hardware shops.

Halsey said it could be configured to move methodically around a whole room, "until it has killed everything in the room."

"And then, rinse and repeat that until you come in in the morning," back to the office space, restaurant or wherever, he said.

Building Momentum members have worked in disaster zones such as the Bahamas following Hurricane Dorian, using drones to locate survivors. The group has worked with EOD technicians to explore new bomb-defusing robotics, and has even taught young Marines how to use 3D printing, laser cutting, welding, robotics and drone building through its "Innovation Boot Camp" program at facilities around the world.

As with his previous efforts, Halsey said he would like to work with the military to employ the technology rapidly and train personnel on its use.

The Roomba-like robot is not intended to be high cost, unlike some medical UV equipment.

"This robot is not a $30,000 robot. It might be a $900 robot or something like that," Halsey said.

The goal is to create a robot that hosts a UV light that produces "800 watts per second, per square meter" in energy output over a surface, Halsey said. Building Momentum is still exploring how best to power that robot -- controlling how fast or slow it moves, and even determining whether to make it airborne.

"From our experience and doing this in these types of scenarios and environments, you just get something out there and get something working, and then you continue refining it as needed," he said.

The group plans to test the robot March 20, with help from a funding grant from the city of Alexandria, Virginia. If proven successful, it could soon be used to disinfect area businesses.

Building Momentum wants to make a point that technologies like this have the ability to be executed in days, Halsey said.

"Not months or years," he said.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

Read more: More Coronavirus coverage

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