Privacy issues with cheap drones

Previously discussed the amazing stuff that little drones can do.

This week’s issue of The Economist has several great articles in the Technology Quarterly section.  One in particular that caught my eye – Unblinking eyes in the sky.

The article says drones that police might use for their operations will fit into the trunk of a car and can be had for the price of a police cruiser. Quite a bargain for surveillance in a crisis situation when you might otherwise need a helicopter which costs $1.7M to buy (according to the article) and require 1 pilot & 1 observer at operating cost of $5k or $10k an hour (my wild guess).

Let’s see.  A few weeks training and $40k for a drone versus 2 people + $10k/hour.  My accounting brain says that’s a slam dunk decision.  I’ll guess a lot of police agencies will want to get drones on-line soon.

The article discusses regulatory issues, which could be the biggest slow-down to seeing lots of drones in the air.

Safety issues? Probably not a major problem. The article says:

The Qube and similarly sized drones have about the same kinetic energy as a large bird. In other words, the threat they pose to other planes in the sky and property on the ground is akin to a bird strike. That is not to be taken lightly, but is something society has learned to live with. Moreover, such drones are expected to fly well below 400 feet (120 metres), and probably (like the rules governing model aircraft) no closer than 3 miles (5km) from an airport.

Bird strikes are a danger, but we can work with that.

Privacy issues? Now there’s a problem.  Having the police watch you in your backyard or the back 40 of your farm is an issue most people will probably have a problem with.  Think of what the paparazzi will do!

The article concludes:

The ACLU’s main worry is the use of drones for surveillance by the police. That is a legitimate concern, but it is not hard to imagine other ways in which UAVs will erode privacy. Given the rapid progress being made in the field, how long before paparazzi photographers are sending insect-like drones to peek through celebrities’ windows, for example? Or think of the possibilities for the use of drones in industrial espionage. Given their potential for legitimate use in law enforcement, agriculture, disaster recovery, construction and security, it seems likely that thousands of drones will take to the air in the coming years. But expect the lawsuits to fly, too.

Check out the full article. Great read.

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