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Spray drones: the answer to tackling COVID-19 infection in the UK?

07 April 2020

Harper Adams Uni offers drone sprayer training to qualified emergency services drone pilots to disinfect infection hotspots.

Agricultural spray drones have been in use for a number of years in countries such as China, India, and the USA. While European regulations prohibit their use, Harper Adams University has been conducting trials, in association with government authorities and other partners, to enable their use for crop protection and weed control within the UK.

China used spray drone systems to disinfect contaminated rural and urban areas in their fight against the coronavirus.

Director of Chinese Investment Connections Ltd. Robert Pearson approached Harper Adams University to ask the institution to share their expertise by providing spray drone training to help fight the pandemic. 

He said: “I’ve been working in China with XAG, the world’s leading agricultural drone manufacturer. When COVID-19 took effect, they were at the forefront of preventative action in China and have been continuously disinfecting areas there for the past eight weeks. They have sprayed more than 902 million square metres in 20 Chinese provinces with remarkable results.

“I approached Harper Adams as they have extensive experience of using spray drone systems and work closely with both XAG and DJI, and asked them to work with us to develop a rapid solution for disinfecting contaminated areas. The university's existing collaboration with XAG will be very beneficial in achieving this.”

Across the UK, there are 48 police drone teams and 100 in the fire service. These teams are specialists in urban flying which is more demanding than rural applications. The plan is for drone and spray experts at Harper Adams University to develop and run an intensive training course for these operators.

This will enable these already qualified drone pilots to operate spray drones to disinfect contaminated infection hotspots, for example, parks, areas outside hospitals, emergency and public transport vehicles, and schools.

The benefits of using drones as a part of an arsenal to disinfect areas are explained by Jonathan Gill, a Mechatronics Researcher and Drone Pilot at Harper Adams University with extensive knowledge of agricultural spray drone systems.

He said: “It is possible to operate spray drones remotely, reducing the need for people to enter contaminated areas to disinfect them and their chance of becoming infected. This means that drone operators would not require medical levels of PPE as standard agricultural sprayer PPE would suffice. They would, therefore, not create an additional burden on the government’s limited supply of medical PPE."

Drone spraying and training will need to be approved before they can commence. The proposal has been forwarded to the UK government to suggest this as a way forward and discussions are taking place with the relevant regulatory bodies.

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