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Carleton University’s Jeremy Laliberté Develops COVID-19 Protocols for Delivery Drone Decontamination

Drone delivery by Shutterstock

Drones can deliver cargo to places that other vehicles can’t reach – whether that’s a remote worksite on a rugged mountainside, or a hurricane-hit community that’s lost road access. But these types of locations are also far removed from medical facilities, and a COVID-19 outbreak a remote location could prove especially difficult to manage.

Decontaminating a drone with disinfectants is one possible solution, but drones haven’t been designed to withstand common cleaning chemicals. “On large passenger aircraft, there are protocols for disinfection and cleaning,” says Jeremy Laliberté, a Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Carleton.

“But historically there has not been a lot of disinfection on drones and small transport planes. We are heading into potentially new territory, with frequent use of decontamination chemicals on some of these aircraft.”

Laliberté is working with two Ontario-based aerospace companies to develop cleaning protocols for drones – more formally called Remote Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS). Through an NSERC Alliance Grant, Laliberté is working with two local companies that make large, cargo delivery drones: Romaeris and Sky Canoe.

In research that they’re conducting at Ottawa’s Area X.O (formerly L5) Autonomous Vehicle Test Track, they will be developing protocols for cleaning and disinfecting drones. They are seeking to identify ways drones can be made easier to disinfect, and how materials that viruses can’t survive on could be incorporated in to their design.

“Aerospace materials and structures are sensitive to degradation, and decontamination can potentially reduce the airworthiness of an aircraft,” says Laliberté.

“Some chemicals can work for drones, but others can’t. On drones, flight control electronics are only inches away from the surface that you’re cleaning. Even if the structure is fine, you can damage the electronics when spraying disinfectant. Cleaning products could cause corrosion in electronics, motors, circuit boards, or connectors.”

While COVID-19 inspired this research, the protocols for drone decontamination that it develops could have benefits that extend beyond the pandemic.

“The idea is that these companies could add cleaning protocols to their operating specifications,” says Laliberté.

“We’re also thinking about things like invasive species. If you’re flying these aircraft in different parts of the world – or even from southern Ontario to northern Ontario — you need to be concerned about moving insects like the emerald ash borer or spruce beetle. We also want to make sure that that those things are not being transported.”

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