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UniSA researchers, Dragonfly working to deploy drone as screening tool for COVID-19 pandemic

Researchers at the University of South Australia (UniSA), in partnership with DragonFly, are working to deploy a drone to monitor and to detect remotely people with infectious respiratory conditions.

The drone will be fitted with a specialized sensor and computer vision system that can monitor temperature, heart and respiratory rates, as well as detect people sneezing and coughing in crowds, offices, airports, cruise ships, aged care homes and other places where groups of people may work or congregate.

The UniSA team, led by Defense Chair of Sensor Systems Professor Javaan Chahl, will work with Dragonfly, a North American drone technology company, and looks to start working with commercial, medical and government customers immediately.

In 2017, Professor Chahl, working alongside Dr Ali Al-Naji and Asanka Perera, demonstrated image-processing algorithms that could extract a human’s heart rate from drone video. Since then they have demonstrated that heart rate and breathing rate can be measured with high accuracy within 5-10 meters of people, using drones and at distances of up to 50 meters with fixed cameras. They have also developed algorithms that can interpret human actions such as sneezing and coughing.

Professor Chahl says the technology was originally envisaged for war zones and natural disasters. In an open-access study published in Remote Sensing in 2019, Chahl and his team used a drone equipped for human life detection with a novel computer vision system to remotely detect the cardiopulmonary motion caused by periodic chest movement of survivors. Chahl says the technology could be a viable screening tool for the COVID-19 pandemic.


The drone equipped with a novel vision system was able to detect cardiopulmonary motion caused by periodic chest movement of “survivors” in an experiment. Al-Naji et al.

It might not detect all cases, but it could be a reliable tool to detect the presence of the disease in a place or in a group of people. Now, shockingly, we see a need for its use immediately, to help save lives in the biggest health catastrophe the world has experienced in the past 100 years.

—Prof Chahl

Draganfly CEO Cameron Chell says his company will use its sensor, software and engineering expertise to work with UniSA to integrate and deploy for government, medical and commercial customers.

We are honored to work on such an important project given the current pandemic facing the world with Covid-19. Health and respiratory monitoring will be vital not only for detection but also to understand health trends.

—Cameron Chell


  • Al-Naji, A.; Perera, A.G.; Mohammed, S.L.; Chahl, J. (2019) “Life Signs Detector Using a Drone in Disaster Zones.” Remote Sens. 11, 2441 doi: 10.3390/rs11202441

  • Perera, A.G.; Khanam, F.-T.-Z.; Al-Naji, A.; Chahl, J. (2020) “Detection and Localisation of Life Signs from the Air Using Image Registration and Spatio-Temporal Filtering.” Remote Sens. 12, 577 doi: 10.3390/rs12030577


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