One of the biggest ongoing stories of the year revolves around the spreading of the coronavirus (COVID-19). As of February 26, 2020 there have been 81,294 reported cases of the virus throughout 45 countries, though mostly in mainland China. Of these cases 30,359 people have gone on to a full recovery while the virus has claimed the lives of 2,770 people. COVID-19 manifests in common cold like symptoms like a fever, cough, or runny nose that can progress as time wears on. The virus can spread from animals to humans, but in the current state it is mainly from human to human contact. The World Health Organization (WHO), The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and medical researchers around the world are racing to find a vaccine and treatment for COVID-19.
The CDC explains the spread of COVID-19 as follows, “Between people who are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet). Via respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs. It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.” The CDC goes on to state, “There is currently no vaccine to prevent coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). The best way to prevent illness is to avoid being exposed to this virus. However, as a reminder, CDC always recommends everyday preventive actions to help prevent the spread of respiratory diseases.” People are reminded to vigilantly wash their hands, cover their mouths with a tissue when sneezing or coughing, properly dispose of soiled tissues, and most importantly, avoid contact with people who may be sick.
In a country like China that is home to over 1.4 billion people, where COVID-19 has been most prevalent, avoiding one another is not an easy task. In Wuhan, the epicenter of the virus, the city of 11 million people have been mostly quarantined. They are only allowed out at certain times of the day and only for necessities. Throughout the rest of China, citizens are urged to stay indoors whenever possible, and if they do leave the house to wear a protective mask and avoid crowds. To reinforce this practice cities and towns began monitoring people with drones out and about. If a drone’s camera spotted someone not following preventative measures, an operator could scold the person from a safe distance to take better care of themselves and be more aware of the risks of being outside. In the last few weeks, drones have become even more useful for those living in China.
People can only stay in their homes for so long. Eventually they need to go out and get basic supplies and food. Meituan Dianping was founded in 2010 by Wang Xing as an app that supplies restaurant and grocery deliveries. The company partners with food and retail businesses and then provides delivery services to participating customers. In wake of the coronavirus Meituan Dianping sped up their idea for using a drone to deliver goods to customers. Now, some of their partnering restaurants can deliver food to customers inside of a restaurant by an autonomous robot. A spokesperson from Meituan Dianping said that the roving drone can carry up to 100 kilograms of goods, enough to make 3-5 deliveries at a time. They went on to say, “This project is to minimize the risk of potential infections caused by human contact and meet the needs of customers in this special time.”
Similarly, JD.com is also using roving drones to help minimize human to human contact in China. In 1998 Richard Liu established JD Multimedia in Bejing. During the 2003 SARS outbreak, Richard saw an opportunity to utilize more web based sales as people were urged not to go outdoors if possible. This led him to close up his brick and mortar establishment and focus solely on an internet based retail model, eventually becoming JD.com, China’s version of Amazon. Today they are China’s largest online retailer. In the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak JD has already allocated RMB 1billion in the fight against the virus. Using their AI and drone resources, JD has been pivotal in delivering medical supplies to hospitals and disease centers. The company is sending out small roving drones to make multiple daily deliveries to Ninth Hospital as well as grocery needs to local communities. Qi Kong, the head of autonomous driving at JD Logistics said, “JD autonomous delivery robots can help reduce human-to-human contact, making them an ideal solution for last-mile delivery solutions in Wuhan during this unique time, protecting both our customers and our employees.”
Besides the ground drone JD is using they also have used an aerial drone to make product deliveries to a village that was inaccessible because of the virus. The detour to the company’s courier would have been 100km around a lake. Instead they launched a drone to fly over the lake and deliver the supplies to a central location in the village in a matter of minutes. The customers were able to get the supplies they needed even though they were temporarily cut off from the rest of the world, while still limiting the human to human contact that is aiding in the spread of the virus. The head of JD’s drone program, Hang Ba said, “JD.com has leveraged automation to improve efficiency and convenience for last mile delivery. Customers here buy snacks, electronics and daily necessities – all of which can be delivered by drone. We are happy to see the unique value our drone can deliver during this special time.”
While the WHO and the CDC work to contain COVID-19, it is crucial that people protect themselves from contacting the virus by any means. The number one way of staying healthy is to not come in contact with anyone who is sick. But as this virus has already been a concern for several months, and shows no likelihood of slowing down, being able to go out in the world is just as important. Luckily companies like Meituan Dianping and JD have found ways to get people the supplies they need without coming in contact with anyone carrying the virus. Both companies have said that they plan on furthering their drone operations to continue supporting their customers.
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