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Photo for illustrative purposes only Image Credit: Pixels

New Yorkers strolling along the East River early last month glanced up to see an unsettling sight: a mysterious drone claiming to represent something called the "Anti-COVID-19 Volunteer Drone Task Force" barking orders to pedestrians below to maintain social distancing.

"Please maintain a social distance of at least 6 feet," the drone intoned, according to a report from CBS News, continuing with gloomy warnings, like "please help stop the spread of this virus" and "reduce the death toll and help save lives."

It wasn't a police drone. Was it a vigilante drone or an aerial white knight? Was it friend or foe?

That's a highly relevant question about drones in general, which are suddenly everywhere during the coronavirus crisis, taking over any number of human tasks as people hunker indoors.

Drones have been working as police officers, soaring over the banks of the Seine in Paris and the city squares of Mumbai, to patrol for social distancing violators.

They're delivering medical supplies in Rwanda and snacks in Virginia. They're hovering over crowds China to scan for fevers below.

Coronavirus has been devastating to humans, but may well prove a decisive step toward a long-prophesied Drone Age, when aerial robots begin to shed their Orwellian image as tools of war and surveillance and become a common feature of daily life, serving as helpers and, perhaps soon, companions.

"Robots are so often cast as the bad guys," said Daniel H. Wilson, a former roboticist and the author of the 2011 science fiction novel "Robopocalypse." "But what's happening now is weirdly utopic, as opposed to dystopic. Robots are designed to solve problems that are dull, dirty and dangerous, and now we have a sudden global emergency in which the machines we're used to fearing are uniquely well suited to swoop in and save the day."

First, however, we'll have to get past the fears of an actual robopocalypse, with robots of the sky rising up to take over while their wetware-enabled former masters huddle in fear below.

Eye in the Sky

The origins of the "Anti-COVID-19 Volunteer Drone Task Force," which turned out to be the work of a Queens drone enthusiast, may have confused New Yorkers initially, but in most cities, there is no question who is running the current aerial patrol. Law enforcement officials in cities and towns around the world have been using drones to scan parks, beaches and city squares for violators wandering into the safe spaces of others.

In China, drones have served as educators or enforcers, depending on your point of view, alerting citizens with unsettlingly folksy warnings about virus violations in robotic voices from above, as reported by CNN.

"Yes auntie, this is the drone speaking to you," said one drone, speaking to an elderly woman below in an eerie bullhorn echo, according to a video published by Global Times, a state-controlled newspaper. "You shouldn't walk about without wearing a mask."

Global Times also published an account of another drone. A voice from above castigated a small child peering skyward while seated with a man who was violating quarantine rules by playing mahjong in public: "Don't look at the drone, child. Ask your father to leave immediately."

The idea of a government eye in the sky doesn't always play so well in the United States, where personal liberty is a founding precept taken very seriously in many regions.

"COVID-19? More like COVID-1984," read one recent Reddit post on a thread about police drones flying over encampments of homeless people in cities such as Fort Worth, Texas and Chula Vista, California, blasting them with messages about coronavirus prevention. "It really feels like we are living in some dystopian science fiction novel," read another.

"Did the drone fly over blueprints for a lightsaber?" another commenter fired back. "Not everything is a conspiracy."

But automated oversight can be a blunt instrument. A police drone deployed in Fairfield, Connecticut, to monitor beaches for social distancing also warned a group of "juveniles" trespassing on the roof of a local elementary school, according to one news account.

In nearby Westport, police scrapped plans for their own drone project to scan crowds for fever temperatures, heart and temperature rates, and even sneezes and coughs, after outcry from the American Civil Liberties Union.

"The big concern is that the coronavirus crisis is going to normalize drones and entrench them in American life," said Jay Stanley, a privacy and technology specialist for the ACLU. "The fear is many of these incursions on freedom will outlast the crisis."

While a drone itself is just a tool, neither inherently good nor evil, it is a tool with nearly unlimited powers for surveillance, Stanley added. Drones can be equipped with so-called stingrays to collect information from people's mobile phones, night-vision cameras, GPS sensors, radar, lidar (laser detection technology for creating three-dimensional maps of an area), as well as thermal and infrared cameras.

Enough people distrust drones that "drone rage" incidents between drone enthusiasts and citizens who do not wish to be filmed from above have become a regular occurrence, Stanley said. One Colorado town even proposed a tongue-in-cheek ordinance in 2014 allowing citizens to shoot down drones invading their airspace, a proposal that itself was shot down by the FAA.

Resistance to pandemic patrol drones has not been confined to privacy watchdogs on the political left. On the right, outlets like Breitbart have also noted that many of the drones surveilling our cities are made in China, often by DJI, the world's largest drone manufacturer, whose headquarters are in Shenzhen.

Some Republican officials have made the same point.

"Using drones, donated by a Chinese company, to spy on Americans during the #coronavirus pandemic?" read a tweet from the official House Judiciary Republicans account. "That doesn't seem like a good idea."

Drones have other uses besides snooping, of course. They have stepped (or soared) up as aerial virus blasters, with authorities in countries around the world - China, Dubai, Indonesia, France, as well as the United States - using them to sanitize city streets.

(It's up to you to decide if government drones spraying cities for pathogens sounds creepy.)

Drones are also performing crucial roles on the medical front lines that may be described as humanitarian ... if they were performed by humans.

"This is the moment when the drone industry gets to show what it can do," said Miriam McNabb, the editor of Dronelife, an industry news site, and the CEO of Job for Drones, an online drone services marketplace. "Things like drone delivery are lifesaving applications that are changing people's perceptions of drones."

Zipline, a San Francisco-based startup founded in 2014 that airdrops medical supplies and ferries tests from more than 1,000 hospitals in Ghana and Rwanda by drone, replacing the need for face-to-face contact.

Zipline's fixed-wing drones have already made 30,600 deliveries of medical products in those countries since the start of the pandemic, the company said: lately delivering cancer drugs, for example, to patients in remote villages who are unable to travel to oncology centers because of quarantine.

"Zipline are the heroes of drone delivery," McNabb said. "In parts of Rwanda, where road infrastructure doesn't support delivery, it's either three days on the back of a motorbike or 15 minutes by drone."

In the United States they are at last delivering more quotidian consumer items too, as long dreamed by Jeff Bezos of Amazon.

Last month, Wing, a drone-delivery service owned by Google's parent company, Alphabet, received the first Federal Aviation Administration approval for commercial package delivery, starting in Christiansburg, Virginia, a town of about 22,000, which is near Wing's testing facility at nearby Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. (Wing is also operating in Helsinki, Finland, as well as Canberra and Logan in Australia.)

During the lockdown, drones have also shown their potential as investigative reporters, bringing to light heart-wrenching stories like the mass graves for unclaimed bodies of COVID-19 victims on Hart Island in New York.

The footage was shot by a photographer, George Steinmetz, whose drone was confiscated by police for photographing the island without permission from the city's Department of Correction. It was widely shared, illustrating the death toll beyond the statistics in Gov. Andrew Cuomo's daily briefing.

And at a time when professional storytellers - novelists, bloggers and many journalists - find themselves walled off to the global story around them, drones have pierced the veil of quarantine. They have created hauntingly poetic imagery of countless empty cities - San Francisco; Las Vegas; Wuhan, China - that says as much about loss in the coronavirus age as any written account.

"Drones sell this idea of emptiness, this lack of life better than anything," said Dexter Kennedy, 29, a drone photographer in Hoboken, New Jersey, who has been shooting aerial footage of abandoned streets in Philadelphia, as well as the empty boardwalks of Atlantic City and Jersey City during the lockdown.

"You get 100 feet up and you can really see the big picture," Kennedy said. "A boardwalk that would normally have thousands of people on it is totally empty. All the rides are empty. The Ferris wheel is not moving. You can see the grid patterns of the street, but no one's out. It looks like an apocalypse movie."