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Could agricultural drones disinfect public areas to combat coronavirus?

PUBLISHED: 12:22 02 April 2020 | UPDATED: 12:22 02 April 2020

Agricultural sprayer drones could disinfect public areas to help combat coronavirus, say researchers. Pictured: Norfolk farmer Chris Eglington trialling his crop-spraying drone. Picture: Sonya Duncan

Agricultural sprayer drones could disinfect public areas to help combat coronavirus, say researchers. Pictured: Norfolk farmer Chris Eglington trialling his crop-spraying drone. Picture: Sonya Duncan

Agricultural drone sprayers could be used to remotely disinfect parks, hospital grounds, transport hubs and schools during the coronavirus pandemic – but only if emergency authorisations are rapidly issued, said researchers.

Agricultural sprayer drones could disinfect public areas to help combat coronavirus, say researchers. Picture: Chris HillAgricultural sprayer drones could disinfect public areas to help combat coronavirus, say researchers. Picture: Chris Hill

Farm technologists and university experts said drones currently being trialled for crop protection and weed control could also be put to use in the fight against Covid-19.

Norfolk farmer Chris Eglington is part of a consortium working on the development of agricultural drone sprayers with Harper Adams University in Shropshire, which has suggested police and fire service drone pilots could be trained to use the equipment to disinfect public areas and hard-to-reach areas from a safe distance.

Mr Eglington, who runs the Crop Angel drone company from his farm near Shipdham, said the technology is ready for such a deployment, but questioned whether the necessary approvals could be obtained quickly enough from chemical and aviation regulators to spray disinfectants and fly near buildings in urban areas, which is currently prohibited.

He said has been working with technology partners and authorities for four years, but has so far only been able to secure a limited 12-month approval for dropping biostimulants on crops, while UK legislation still prevents him from spraying most mainstream agro-chemicals and pesticides.

“I would say the hardware and the software is 100pc ready,” he said. “The drones are more than capable, but it is the regulatory side that is the problem.

“I would have thought disinfectant would be further away than what we have been trying to do in the countryside.

“If it is a park then it is a piece of cake, but if you are looking at going into a truly urban situation where you are going up and down streets you would be breaking most of the laws as they stand at the moment. The CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) would have to say the operational safety case allows you to do things you are not normally allowed to do, and then the CRD (Chemicals Regulation Directorate) would need to allow us to spray chemicals.

“But if the government decides that it is what they want to do, then I think it will happen. If the government says something, we must all do whatever they tell us.”

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Jonathan Gill, a mechatronics researcher at the university, added: “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 (personal protective equipment) as standard agricultural sprayer PPE would suffice.”

The university said it had been approached by Robert Pearson, director of Chinese Investment Connections, to look at the potential for such a project in tackling what it termed “infection hotspots”. Mr Pearson said drones had been used in China with “remarkable results”.

The proposal has been sent to the government and discussions are taking place with regulatory bodies including the Health and Safety Executive, the university said.

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Stephen Baker from the Department of Medicine at the University of Cambridge said: “I guess the questions I would have around it would be what hotspots they would identify and whether actually spraying parks or other things is going to have a big impact on disease transmission, when we know that actually probably the majority of transmission is likely to occur when we’re in close proximity to people.

“Without an appropriately designed study, which is difficult given the conditions we’re in and also what they want to achieve, it would be really difficult to estimate the potential impact of what spraying a park would do.

“But I think that given the fact that we’re in unprecedented circumstances, anything that could try and contribute to reducing disease transmission should be supported.”


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