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Commercial Drones and Privacy

A couple of years ago I wrote an article on the Bassetti Foundation website about the use of drones and other robot devices in warfare. Times have moved on however, and now drones are much smaller and cheaper, so you do not need a multi-billion dollar budget to buy one.

a quadcopter drone
A commercial quadcopter drone

To give you an idea, $600 US will buy you this quadcopter. Perfect for the beginner, plate already mounted for the camera and can also carry a small payload.

If you want something that resembles an aeroplane why not take a look at  the CropCam (before it takes a look at you). $6999 I grant you but a fine machine. Hand launched it is guided by its GPS navigation system, automatically lands and takes pictures, flies at 60 Km an hour and can be fitted with a video. You set up the GPS and the autopilot does the rest.

As the name suggests, this vehicle is aimed at the commercial market, look at your crops, find your animals and catch your daughter in a haystack with the boy next door.

The haystack incident might sound like a joke but it is really a serious problem. There are no regulations about where you fly your new machine in the USA. The market for Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) is in massive expansion as farmers, security companies, private detectives, news organizations, traffic and transport management companies and many others see the potential in such snooping power. The machines can be fitted with face recognition software, thermal imaging and license plate readers, and many see this as problematic.

A couple of months ago the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) launched a code of conduct for the industry, in the light of a new law in the USA that allows anyone to operate one of these systems (see the Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act of 2012).

Privacy groups are up in arms however, claiming that the mass use of this type of technology will lead to massive infringements upon personal liberty, and they take no comfort from the code of conduct. Voluntary as it is, the code is extremely general, has no enforcement mandate, contains no discussion at all about the myriad potential privacy and safety issues raised by unrestricted drone use over U.S. airspace, and there is nothing about the intended audience or user.

One US Senator however is trying to take action. Sen. Rand Paul has introduced a bill that aims at protecting Americans against unwanted drone surveillance. Read about it here.

The present regulations state that 400 feet above your house you enter neutral territory, a bit like international waters off the coast, so anyone has the right to fly their drone 401 feet over your house. These machines are small so you probably wouldn’t notice it, but as we know cameras are good nowadays. At a few hundred dollars for a vehicle they are becoming available to almost anyone, and certainly any business or organization.

Do you think this could become a problem? Is it yet another invasion of privacy or a justified use of technology? I am all ears.