Chahl put this student in contact with another researcher whose research interests pertained to using drones to understand patterns of human activities, and prompted the pair to consider if it were possible to measure a person’s heart rate remotely, using a drone.

“It’s interesting technologically, because most people just don’t believe it’s possible,” he said.

Further experimentation opened up a number of potential hypotheses, including whether it was possible to use a drone to detect the breathing of someone trapped underneath debris.

“We also published a paper on doing the same with animals,” Chahl said. “But it’s a little harder because animals don’t blush, so you have to look at movement on the wall of the thorax from both the heart and breathing simultaneously.”

Pandemic pressures

The team had potential implementations for the health sector front of mind during development.

“We tested on a drone, but also made an example of a ‘kiosk’ that could measure people’s vital signs [in situ],” Chahl said, which could potentially identify if the individual had a fever, elevated heart rate or unusual breathing pattern.

The program “died down” for a while before receiving an uptick of interest in early 2020 when Draganfly approached his team. With the recent emergence of COVID-19, the question was mooted as to whether they could use the technology to make an informed assessment of whether a person might be infected.

“Bear in mind, at that time we didn’t know what COVID was,” said Chahl. “It gave the impression of being very lethal.”

Using drones seemed useful, he noted, when examining the state of a group of people from a safe distance. The path towards realisation was not smooth-sailing, however.

“Everything was scavenged,” he said. “We couldn’t buy a decent Nvidia GPU card for love or money, and so we were stripping computers for parts. We were personally calling people in computer shops we’d known 10 years ago to find these cards.

“It was a special kind of nightmare.”

The public’s response, too, proved noteworthy.

“A lot of the publicity from that time was about privacy, and I was conscious of that,” he said. “My main concern was not coercively establishing people’s physical state. I think there should be clear laws against doing that. I’m a strong believer in the government enforcing the laws they make, and they haven’t stopped this.”

Nonetheless, in taking just months to move the project from initial development to commercialisation, the project is an impressive feat of engineering, according to Chahl.

He has now passed the technology to industry partners, preferring to focus on fresh academic pursuits.

“In some ways, technology reaches a point where it’s better off in the hands of industry,” he said. “They can think about what to do with it.

“We had adverse publicity when a law enforcement body in the US wanted to use the technology. There was quite an outcry, and that turned us off it a bit. I didn’t particularly want protesters turning up at our university.

“We haven’t done much with it since then, simply because we usually break in the door, as it were, with a technology, but normally we don’t keep progressing it – that’s for a different type of researcher.”

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