Pandemic Drones

Promises and Perils

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  • 1 Eckerd College, USA
  • | 2 University of Manchester, UK


When the novel coronavirus moved around the planet in early 2020, reconfiguring, slowing down, or halting everyday mobilities, another transport mode was mobilized: the pandemic drone. We highlight the increasing prominence of this aerial device by surveying international media coverage of pandemic drone use in the spring of 2020. To address a range of pandemic drone affordances and applications, we organize manifold cases under two broad categories: sensing and moving with the pandemic drone. Here we ask: what roles do, and could, drones play during the pandemic? Following the empirical examples and related mobilities research, we theorize the drone versus virus and the drone as virus. As such, the work identifies avenues for mobilities research into pandemic drones as a growing mobility domain. Moreover, in thinking through the pandemic drone, we demonstrate creative extensions of mobilities thinking that bridge biological and technological, as well as media and mobility frameworks when multiple public health and safety crises unfolded and intersected.

The COVID-19 pandemic caused a “mobility shock.”1 Physical mobility across geographical space was reduced to domestic and local spaces, and, where possible, shifted to televisual and virtual realms. While many stayed at home, others, such as health professionals, delivery drivers, and grocery workers, kept the world moving. Similarly, with airplanes grounded, cars parked, and residents self-isolated, one mode of mobility gained prominence: small remotely-controlled aerial systems known as drones.

With viruses, drones, and our ideas still in motion, we bring critical attention to the role of pandemic drones.2 First, by informally surveying news and social media coverage from March to May 2020, we typologize emerging drone applications, providing an overview of the what, how, and why of recent drone practices. We organize the empirical cases under two broad categories: first, sensing with the pandemic drone, and second, moving with the pandemic drone. In the third section, we think through the pandemic drone, reflecting on its promises and perils. Drawing on the sensory and mobility capacities of pandemic drones, we examine the positionality of the pandemic drone versus virus and as virus. Finally, we reflect on the role and impact of the pandemic drone in a post-pandemic world.

Despite growing research, drones remain peripheral to mobilities scholarship.3 The increasing presence of drones amidst the global outbreak demands renewed attention to the risks and benefits of remotely controlled flying cameras. For better or worse, such ambivalent mobile modes may eventually form part of everyday mobilities. As Sheller recognizes, “Shortly on the heels of this global slow down, there is also a mounting shift towards new patterns and kinds of mobilities.”4 The pandemic drone, which enables sensing, moving, and relating at a distance, is just such a new kind mobility.

Several questions drive this survey of pandemic drone usage: What roles do, and could, drones play during the global outbreak? What promises and perils do drones yield during and after this crisis? And finally, what does thinking through the figure of the pandemic drone contribute to critical mobilities research? Drones constitute a growing mobility domain, and we identify avenues for mobilities research to engage with their applications during the pandemic. Moreover, we demonstrate creative expansions for mobilities thinking through a dyadic probing of drone versus virus and drone as virus. In the conceptual entanglement of virus and drone mobilities, we illuminate the intellectual merits of bridging biological and technological frameworks, as well as medium and mobility for revitalized assessments of contemporary movement and non-movement of people, goods, and information. Such work is relevant in the context of multiple intersecting public health and safety crises during the spring of 2020, from COVID-19 to police brutality and anti-white supremacy protests by the Black Lives Matter movement, and how these issues persist into the present.

Sensing with the Pandemic Drone

The visual affordances of the aerial camera are a key attraction for commercial, military, and private drone users.5 Its unique ways of seeing and sensing are also crucial in the emergence of the pandemic drone. Seeing at a distance allows top-down surveilling, screening, policing, and remote witnessing. A prominent drone application during the early global outbreak was to observe and police the public. In a case from China, for example, police used a drone equipped with a loudspeaker to “warn people in the streets to stay indoors, wear masks, and wash their hands.”6 A video, recorded by drone, shows an older woman outdoors. A male voice, communicated via the drone, orders her to put on a face mask. The woman takes a moment to process the location of the voice, which comes from above. Then, parsing the instruction, she retreats into a nearby building. In this top-down application, the drone observes and orders in a one-way mode of communication with limited recourse on the part of the observed.

Officials in France, Italy, Spain, and the UK adopted similar strategies. In France and Spain, police patrolled high traffic public spaces, such as parks and beaches, delivering public safety announcements.7 In Italy, after drone surveillance and lockdown enforcements were approved, one mayor was eager to “check all the villages on the screens” with “drones everywhere.”8 In the UK, police faced criticisms of over-surveillance when they shared a video on social media of people social distancing while walking in Peak District National Park. “Going for a walk—miles from home. Not essential,” criticized the official video. While the individuals were violating government guidance about accessing remote areas, the police action was deemed “badly misjudged” over the extent to which it shamed people who maintained social distance.9

The surveillance capacity of the pandemic drone is largely limited to the audiovisual realm, that is, a camera complemented by speakers. However, pandemic drones have other affordances. Drones can use thermal sensing to determine temperature on the ground. This capability is central in the use of military drones for sensing human presence in target zones.10 Additionally, search and rescue teams use aerial drone thermography to locate people who are lost.11 In the context of the pandemic, such application was proposed to identify individuals in groups who have high temperatures.12 In an Australian-Canadian collaboration, aircraft manufacturer Draganfly developed a “pandemic drone” to remotely monitor health symptoms.13 The objective was to equip drones with sensors to screen people for temperature, heart, and respiratory rates and to “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.”14 Such biomedical screening and population health sampling takes drone capacities for policing15 and collecting private data to the next level, exemplifying what Adey calls “security atmospheres.”16 Draganfly's pandemic drone was trialed by a police in Connecticut and promptly shut down due to citizen privacy concerns.17 Further, WeRobotics, a drone non-profit, criticized Draganfly's claims about the efficacy of the pandemic drone.18 Conducting temperature checks on one person in a controlled setting, for instance, may not be applicable to crowded and dynamic settings. Further, fever is not a typical feature of the most recent Delta variant.

Visual and thermal aerial surveillance offers unique access to managing public health and safety. Kaufmann suggests that the sensing capacities of drones shape the ways that a pandemic is understood, both by governments through increased situational awareness and by residents who experience, possibly for the first time, aerial surveillance and enforcement.19 Richardson observes that “feeling like you're constantly being watched can create a kind of atmospheric anxiety, particularly for marginalized groups that are already closely monitored because of their religion or welfare status.”20 The pandemic has contributed to atmospheric anxiety as the disease is transmitted through the air. The use of pandemic drones for surveillance and policing adds another layer of atmospheric anxiety, though some of this anxiety was intended to instigate positive social action, such as mask wearing and social distancing.

A different kind of atmospheric anxiety permeates aerial images of cities in lock-down. Eerie aerial scenes of empty urban streetscapes from Wuhan to New Delhi to Los Angeles make visible the absences and dispersions caused by the presence of the virus.21 In stark contrast, aerial views from Florida showed beaches packed during spring break in 2020. In these cases, drone views allow for witnessing the varying effects of the pandemic on places and perspectives. As such, pandemic drone imagery enhances “situational awareness”22 and, along with the virus, generates “new forms of presence and absence.”23 This notion is powerfully conveyed in the aerial images of mass graves on Hart Island in New York. As morgue space dwindled and the death toll climbed, drone footage showed workers burying unclaimed bodies.24 The pandemic drone can make visible aspects of the disaster occurring away from most eyes and ears.

Moving with the Pandemic Drone

In addition to capturing images, collecting health data, and conveying messages, drones delivered goods and public services. In Italy, a medical drone designed to carry medicine and biological samples, such as swabs, for up to five kilometers was adapted for pandemic use. The company states that, “If an old person needs urgent medicine we can reach him … in two minutes … We can then land and give him instructions by phone on how to get it out of the box.”25 In China, a package containing “snacks, electronics, and daily necessities” was flown two kilometers across a lake to a village. Usually, a boat would be used, but the service was disrupted due to the outbreak. The same trip by land takes 100 kilometers.26 Medical drones were promoted as being able to reduce delivery time and provide contactless exchange, minimizing the risk of disease transmission to patients and healthcare professionals.27

In addition, the pandemic drone serves public health goals via illumination and disinfection. In China, six lighting drones facilitated the construction of the Wuhan Vulcan Mountain Hospital.28 Drones hovered in place, allowing construction to carry on through the night. The 1000-bed field hospital was built in just over a week. Moreover, in China, India, Indonesia, and the United Arab Emirates, drones sprayed chlorine and ethyl alcohol disinfectants in public spaces, as well as “factories, residential areas, hospitals, and waste treatment plants.”29 According to DJI, a commercial drones market leader, aerial spraying is fifty times faster than other methods.30 Drones thus afford efficient responses to emerging needs like illumination and decontamination. However, such uses also exacerbate atmospheric anxieties when patrolling and policing extend into the night, as well as change the chemical composition of the air. These examples position the pandemic drone as a powerful mobile means of combating the virus, as well an invasive viral mobility itself, a point to which we will return.

Notable in these top-down examples of drone use are the potent affordances that allow remote others to act at a distance. As seen, law enforcement extended itself via the sensorial and mobile capabilities of the pandemic drone. However, “vertical mediation” is also available to civilians.31 Bottom-up uses of flying cameras are cultural practices that, according to Parks, similarly “move through (or beyond) the atmosphere” and thereby generate “affects and sensations, modulate moods, reorder lifeworlds, and alter everyday spaces.”32 Examples include videos of a man in Cyprus using his drone to “walk” his dog, and another man in New York delivering his phone number via drone to a woman exercising on a nearby rooftop.33 These viral cases speak to civilian drone capacities for tele-performing. Here, the pandemic drone is akin to a virus in its extraordinary social media mobilities. At the same time, drones also allow individuals to overcome spatial barriers established in response to the virus; whether welcome or not.

Finally, drones are enrolled in celebration. In Wuhan and Philadelphia, drone formations illuminated the night sky in a narrative aerial dance to honor healthcare workers, and in the case of Wuhan, celebrate easing of restrictions.34 The spectacles were similar in their presentation of local signs and symbols. The Philadelphia show even included a drone formation of an angry coronavirus emoji. The drone is thus a medium for celebrating virus-related responses as well as for communicating and visually representing the virus itself.

Thinking through the Pandemic Drone

Having surveyed the pandemic drone's sensory and mobility affordances, we turn to probing the dyad of drone versus virus and drone as virus. Here, we consider the merits of configuring such biological and technological frameworks for theory-building and expanding critical mobilities research.

First, in assessing drone versus virus, we recognize that pandemic drones make mobilities of the virus, and mobilizations against the virus, visible. Drone images from around the world of empty streets and tourist attractions sent a viral message that communities were embracing self-isolation measures. The images are persuasive, a visual enactment and record of the global slow-down, conveying the scale of the mobility shock in which lockdowns were enforced and embraced. In the absence of people and movement, the presence of the virus can be sensed via drone. More importantly, viewers sense community efforts to hinder and halt viral mobilities. As such, drone visuals are an effective means to recognize and communicate communal efforts against the mobility of the virus.

The mobile capabilities of the pandemic drone similarly highlight its potential to counter and cope with the virus. The aerial device conducted surveillance, delivered goods, screened people, disinfected public spaces, and served as a medium for celebration. The industry framed this as #dronesforgood.35 This raises the question of how drones could be further positioned against the virus. In 2021, drones are being used to deliver vaccines to remote communities, such as by Zipline in Ghana.36 However, as with some applications of pandemic drones in earlier stages of the pandemic, such initiatives seem as much about proving and promoting the viability of drone technology as tackling the pandemic. In such scenarios, pandemic drones may be a comforting sight for self-isolating eyes. What if the surveying drone serves not to suppress but to support, not to intervene but to assist, not to shame but to empathize? The drone is an unlikely figure for utopian imaginaries given its military background and associations, yet the humanitarian, medical, activist, and recreational uses of drones in real life and fiction suggest that the pandemic drone can be a figure of care.37

Nonetheless, the perils of the pandemic drone as virus remain. The visual aerial mobility that offers lateral insight into the state of global cities tips into vertical oversight when used by law enforcement. The use of drones by police to enforce self-isolation, while in the service of public health, has a dystopian quality. Graham and colleagues warn of the potential for “drone victimization” by both law enforcement and other actors who, for example, shame people in public without masks or gaze into private spaces, such as homes.38 In the US, military drones were used by Customs and Border Protection to surveil Black Lives Matter protestors.39 These drones purportedly identified civilians who instigated violence. It is unclear whether military drones were also used to surveil armed anti-lockdown protestors in Michigan in April 2020 and elsewhere.

The potentially uneven drone use from the top-down and bottom-up also raises questions about the afterlife of drone footage, especially of protests. Did the drone catch me? If so, what will happen to my personal data now and in the future? Similarly, people wonder: Did the virus catch me? If so, what will happen to my body now and in the future? Like the virus, drones are airborne and invasive. The virus lingers, the drone hovers. The use of drones for surveillance, enforcement, and spraying creates an “envirusment” where the atmosphere is a source of anxiety. Where is the virus? Who is spreading it? Where is the drone? Who is operating it? Parallels exist in imaginaries and atmospheric anxieties that both viruses and drones engender. Thinking through the pandemic drone as virus makes visible such unseen, potentially invasive qualities and affects. Meanwhile, other COVID-related techniques, such as screening with thermometers in public places, testing using nasal swabs in drive-throughs, and contact tracing via smartphone apps, may enhance potentially life-saving atmospheric anxieties, as well as raise questions about the future of bodily privacy and corporeal mobility in the name of public health.

McCosker reminds us that drones are unruly systems regardless of who operates them.40 Drones mediating across three-dimensional space is not new, yet pandemic drones bring to light additional uses and misuses, ways of seeing and moving, from flirting to surveilling, that may linger or continue post pandemic. Further, the use of drones by law enforcement intersected with debates about police funding and alludes to alternative post-pandemic futures that may resist, counter, and subvert pandemic drone affordances.

Post-Pandemic Drone Mobilities

Pandemic drones are promising and perilous. Our ideas remain in motion as applications continue to evolve. The figure of the drone, too, remains in motion, needing to be momentarily held in place for critical assessment before we move forward into a future with novel (im)mobilities. This is the work of mobilities thinkers. Avenues for research include studying lived experiences with pandemic drones and collected data, following drones and their operators; governmental, commercial, and scientific applications; as well as understanding the anxiety and fear, enthusiasm, and entertainment that drones engender. To what extent might the unique remotely-controlled physical mobilities of the pandemic drone reshape mobilities that are crowded, congested, and carbon-intensive? Ultimately, how might drones help communities rethink movement and non-movement related to public health and safety more generally?

Sensing, moving, and thinking through the pandemic drone opens new vistas for theory-building research, such as how the aerial mode intertwines with viral mobilities. As we study this and other pandemic mobilities, researchers also have an opportunity to re-imagine and re-assess critical mobilities research. In conceptualizing the drone versus virus and as virus, we address the constructive bridging of biological and technological frameworks as well as conceptual entanglements of media and mobility. We imagine mobilities thinking that juxtaposes, reconciles, and complicates mobilities like the virus and the drone, the human and nonhuman, the biological and technological, the ground and the air, along with the powers that structure our lifeworlds top-down and bottom-up. Such boundary-crossing work matters as countries and communities grapple with multiple public and social health crises: COVID-19, systemic racism, and police brutality, as well as the ongoing climate crisis, which, through habitat loss, for example, exacerbates virus transmission from animals to humans.41 Cresswell and Martin argue that disruption and turbulence can be formative.42 The pandemic drone versus virus and as virus is a source of such formative disruption, demanding further scrutiny from mobilities scholars.



Mimi Sheller, “Some Thoughts on What Comes After a Mobility Shock,” Drexel University, College of Arts and Sciences, 31 March 2020,


We adopt and expand the term “pandemic drone” from the Canadian aircraft manufacturer, Draganfly; see Chaim Gartenberg, “Connecticut Suburb Deploys ‘Pandemic Drones’ to Try to Enforce Social Distancing,” The Verge, 23 April 2020,


Key works include Anna Jackman, “Consumer Drone Evolutions: Trends, Spaces, Temporalities, Threats,” Defense & Security Analysis 35, no. 4 (2019): 362–83; Julia M. Hildebrand, Aerial Play: Drone Medium, Mobility, Communication & Culture (Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021); Stephanie Sodero and Richard Rackham, “Blood Drones: Using Utopia as Method to Imagine Future Vital Mobilities,” Mobilities 15, no. 1 (2020): 11–24; Peter Adey, “Making the Drone Strange: The Politics, Aesthetics and Surrealism of Levitation,” Geographica Helvetica 71, no. 4 (2016): 319–29; Thomas Birtchnell and Chris Gibson, “Less Talk More Drone: Social Research with UAVs,” Journal of Geography in Higher Education 39, no. 1 (2015): 182–89.


Sheller, “Some Thoughts on What Comes After a Mobility Shock.”


Derek Gregory, “From a View to a Kill Drones and Late Modern War,” Theory, Culture & Society 28, no. 7–8 (December 1, 2011): 188–215; Medea Benjamin, Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control (London: Verso, 2013); Lisa Parks, “Drones, Vertical Mediation, and the Targeted Class,” Feminist Studies 42, no. 1 (2016): 227–35; Ian Shaw, “The Urbanization of Drone Warfare: Policing Surplus Populations in the Dronepolis,” Geographica Helvetica 71, no. 1 (2016): 19; Lisa Parks and Caren Kaplan, eds., Life in the Age of Drones (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017).


Kari Soo Lindberg and Colum Murphy, “Drones Take to China's Skies to Fight Coronavirus Outbreak,” Bloomberg, February 2020,


Megan Bourdon and Ruqayyah Moynihan, “One of the Largest Cities in France Is Using Drones to Enforce the Country's Lockdown after the Mayor Worried Residents Weren't Taking Containment Measures Seriously,” Business Insider, 20 March 2020,


Luca Santocchia, “Watch: Italian Mayor Uses Drone to Scream at Locals to Stay Indoors,” Euronews, 26 March 2020,


“Drone Police Slammed for ‘shaming’ Walkers,” BBC News, 27 March 2020,


Stephen Graham, Vertical: The City from Satellites to Bunkers (New York: Verso, 2016); Lisa Parks, “Drones, Infrared Imagery, and Body Heat,” International Journal of Communication 8 (2014): 2518–2521; Harry Parker, Anatomy of a Soldier (London: Faber & Faber, 2001).


Melina Schuler, “Bridgewater Police and Fire Departments Respond to Canoers in Distress,” Bridgewater Police Department, 21 June 2020,


Jonathan Jackson, “Drone Defence against COVID-19,” Finfeed, 27 March 2020,






Anna Feigenbaum and Anja Kanngieser, “For a Politics of Atmospheric Governance,” Dialogues in Human Geography 5, no. 1 (2015): 80–84; Caren Kaplan and Andrea Miller, “Drones as ‘Atmospheric Policing’ from US Border Enforcement to the LAPD,” Public Culture 31, no. 3 (2019): 419–45.


Peter Adey, “Security Atmospheres or the Crystallization of Worlds,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 32, no. 5 (2014): 841.


Sally French, “Protests Erupt over Police Using Draganfly Temperature Checking Drones,” The Drone Girl (blog), 27 April 2020,


“Drones and the Coronavirus: Do These Applications Make Sense? (Updated),” WeRobotics (blog), 9 April 2020,


Mareile Kaufmann, “Drone/Body: The Drone's Power to Sense and Construct Emergencies,” in The Good Drone, ed. Kristin Bergtora Sandvik and Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert (London: Routledge, 2017), 174.


Michael Richardson, “‘Pandemic Drones’: Useful for Enforcing Social Distancing, or for Creating a Police State?” Homeland Security News Wire, 1 April 2020,




Kaplan and Miller, “Drones as ‘Atmospheric Policing’,” 424.


Kaufmann, “Drone/Body: The Drone's Power to Sense and Construct Emergencies,” 174.


“Aerial Video Shows Mass Grave on New York City's Hart Island amid Corona-virus Surge,” The Guardian, 10 April 2020,


Elite Consulting, Inc., “Italian Drone Dealer Creates Delivery Box for Swabs, COVID Meds,” UAS Magazine, 23 March 2020,


Song Jingli, “JD.Com Uses Logistics Drones as Coronavirus Disrupts Traffic in China,” KrASIA, 10 February 2020,


Richardson, “‘Pandemic Drones.’”


Mohit Sagar, “How Drones Are Assisting Government in China Fight COVID-19,” OpenGov Asia (blog), 11 March 2020,


Haye Kesteloo, “DJI Pledges $1,5M and Uses DJI Argas Drones to Fight Coronavirus,” DroneDJ (blog), 12 February 2020,




Lisa Parks, Rethinking Media Coverage (New York: Routledge, 2018).


Parks, 14.


Richardson, “‘Pandemic Drones.’”


Sammi Chan, “1,000 Drones Light up Shenzhen Night Sky to Celebrate Wuhan Ending Lockdown,” South China Morning Post, 10 April 2020,; Erin McCarthy, “A Drone Light Show Lit up the Philly Skies to Thank Health Workers amid the Coronavirus Pandemic,” Inquirer, 30 April 2020,


“DJI Helps Fight Coronavirus With Drones—DJI ViewPoints,” DJI Hub (blog), 12 February 2020,


Sai Balasubramanian, “Drones Are Now Being Used to Deliver Covid-19 Vaccines,” Forbes, 6 March 2021,


See Julia M. Hildebrand, “Drone-Topia as Method,” Mobilities 15, no. 1 (2020): 25–38.


Amanda Graham, Haylee Kutzli, Teresa C. Kulig, and Francis T. Cullen, “Invasion of the Drones: A New Frontier for Victimization,” Deviant Behavior 42, no. 3 (2021): 286–403.


Corinne Reichert, “Homeland Security Used Aircraft to Surveil BLM Protests in 15 Cities,” CNET, 19 June 2020,; Zolan Kanno-Youngs, “U.S. Watched George Floyd Protests in 15 Cities Using Aerial Surveillance,” The New York Times, 19 June 2020,


Anthony McCosker, “Drone Media: Unruly Systems, Radical Empiricism and Camera Consciousness,” Culture Machine 16 (2015),


Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment, “Coronavirus and Climate Change: A Conversation on COVID-19 with Dr. Aaron Bernstein, Director of Harvard C-CHANGE,” 19 May 2020, mate-change/; Martha Currie, “How Climate Change Could Make Outbreaks like COVID-19 More Common,” CBC Radio, 14 February 2020,


Tim Cresswell and Craig Martin, “On Turbulence: Entanglements of Disorder and Order on a Devon Beach,” Tijdschrift Voor Economische En Sociale Geografie 103, no. 5 (2012): 516–29.

Contributor Notes

Julia M. Hildebrand is an Assistant Professor of Communication at Eckerd College, USA. Email:

Stephanie Sodero is a Lecturer in Responses to Climate Crises at the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute, University of Manchester. Email:


Interdisciplinary Journal of Mobility Studies


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