UPDATE: Pandemic Drones Nixed in Westport

Update: Shortly after announcing a pandemic drone program to enforce social distancing, Westport Police scrapped the plan to use drones. The walk-back followed condemnation by the ACLU, who said the plan was example of “privacy-invading companies who are taking advantage of COVID-19 to market their products in the future.

On Facebook Wednesday night Westport Police Chief Foti Koskinas wrote, “after careful consideration and in 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 Jim 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 stated, “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. ​

Original Story, Wednesday April 22: On First Selectman Fred Camillo’s daily call with the local press he was asked whether Greenwich might follow Westport’s lead in testing drones to monitor public spaces, including parks, for social distancing and fever during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Westport was hard hit by COVID-19 early on.

Following a “super spreader” party back on March 5, when about 50 guests gathered at a private home for a 40th birthday celebration, one guest, a South African businessman fell ill on the plane home to Johannesburg. Afterward, more than half the party guests became infected.

Westport, with a population of about 28,000, roughly half that of Greenwich, experienced a surge in cases.

As of Wednesday, April 22, according to data from the State of CT, that town has 221 cases, while Greenwich has 595. (Stamford has 2167, Norwalk has 1358, Darien has 176).

Westport’s drone program has been dubbed the “Flatten the Curve Pilot Program.”

The drones are equipped with technology to monitor breathing, fever and even heart rate.

The New York Civil Liberties Union issued a statement saying drone use would have to be scientifically justified, communicated transparently to the public, limited in scope and duration and should always require informed consent.

Cameron Chell,  CEO of Draganfly, the drone company that created the technology, said the system was designed to hone in on patterns, not individual identities.

Westport Police said in a post on Facebook that one of the major problems managing and responding to a pandemic is determining how wide the disease has spread and protecting first responders.

Westport Police Chief Foti Koskinas said, “Using drones remains a go-to technology for reaching remote areas with little to no manpower required. Because of this technology, our officers will have the information and quality data they need to make the best decision in any given situation.”

The pandemic drone is equipped with a specialized sensor and computer vision systems that can display fever and temperature, heart and respiratory rates, as well as detect people sneezing and coughing in crowds, and wherever groups of people may work or congregate.

The technology can accurately detect infectious conditions from a distance of 190 feet as well as measure social distancing.

Officials in Westport said their goal was to provide better health monitoring support for potential at-risk groups, including seniors, as well as for gathering crowds at beaches, train stations, parks, recreation areas, and shopping centers. They say the technology will not be used in individual private yards, nor does it employ facial recognition technology.

Westport First Selectman Jim Marpe said, “We know that social distancing is working to flatten the curve and ultimately saving lives. In an effort to continue safeguarding the citizens of Westport during the COVID-19 outbreak, and as we position ourselves to gradually return to our routines, we should explore ways to prevent a possible resurgence of the virus.”

He added that he was proud of the Westport Police Dept’s commitment to discovering smart solutions for current and future health emergencies.”

In response, Greenwich First Selectman Camillo said on Wednesday, “It’s well intended. They’re already being attacked by the ACLU and libertarians. …We’re not there yet. We haven’t even discussed it.”

Camillo added, “People get skittish on drones. They can be taken too far. It’s like the internet in the mid 1990s. There were a lot of unknowns with it.”

Camillo said he was aware that police and fire departments do use drones to locate fires, find missing dogs, and to assist in apprehending criminals.

“There’s a lot that can be done with them,” he said. “I take my hat off to them (Westport) to do anything that is reasonable, but of course they’re going to get attacked.”

Asked whether given the COVID-19 outbreak he might furlough or lay off town employees, Camillo said towns are all responding differently.

Last week Town of Trumbull, for example, laid off 30 part-time workers whose jobs could not be done remotely.

Camillo said some towns are responding to the situation by bonding. Others are tapping their fund balances. Some will do a combination of both.

“The Office of First Selectman is looking at the budget and revising it,” Camillo said. “Both operational and capital. We haven’t gotten to furloughing or reducing head count, but any open positions are not being filled right now.”

“We are looking potentially at part time workers,” he said.

“We can deliver a very low tax rate to the citizens at a time when they can really use it and look for any and all savings,” he said, adding that the BET would have his revised proposed budget to vote on Monday. “We’ve been working with them,” he said.

Camillo said rather than borrowing or turning to the town’s fund balance, “We are looking to cut our budget, both operational and capital, and won’t be filling any positions unless there was something pending.”

“It’s a fluid situation,” he said.