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Military drones are scary enough, but toy-store drones without ethical guidelines are going to be terrifying

Parrot_AR.Drone_2

By Simon Davies

Walking through Boston Airport yesterday brought both the chill of foreboding and a thrill of excitement. I was being chased by a miniature drone.

It is without question the coolest toy on earth, but with further development it has the potential to corrode both our quality of life and our level of privacy.

It was an awesome piece of technology. Controlled remotely through the Android platform it had two high resolution cameras, gyroscopic stabilisers and proximity sensors. The video images were sent back to the controller, who was able simultaneously to keep an eye on me while scoping out the ground below for obstacles.

The drone – one of the larger species at around a foot in span – has an onboard computer that runs a Linux operating system, and communicates with the pilot through a self-generated Wi-Fi hotspot. The onboard sensors include an ultrasonic altimeter, which is used to provide vertical stabilisation. It has 4GB of storage along with GPS tracking and navigation and ingeniously allows pilots to define a flight path by selecting a series of waypoints that the drone will follow.

Most remarkable of all is that this device was being sold in an electronics store for – wait for it – only $299. It is without question the coolest toy on earth, but with further development it has the potential to corrode both our quality of life and our level of privacy.

The AR Drone 2.0 was designed by French company Parrot, and it has already run into controversy. German consumer affairs minister Ilse Aigner described it as a privacy threat, and called for restrictions to be placed on the use of cameras mounted on aerial platforms. You can see a demo here.  And here is one of several vids that provide a real time surveillance view.

I doubt the minister was being paranoid. This device is in its infancy, but its potential to encompass new facilities and surveillance capacity is limited only by its range and lifting power. As an off-the-shelf unit it is currently able to fly around 250 feet from the operator and stay aloft for between 30 an 45 minutes.

However even the battery limitation is adaptable. The device uses conventional lithium polymer rechargeable batteries, but a dedicated enthusiast could modify these by building in newly developed nanowire or solar cell batteries, which would increase flying time by up to a thousand percent. It would only then require development of an enhanced mobile feed or a series of relays for the unit to have a range of many miles.

This device is in its infancy, but its potential to encompass new facilities and surveillance capacity is limited only by its range and lifting power.

The current development of a commercially viable smaller drone for the mass market may increase range and longevity. MeCam will release a $50 camera drone next year while CrazyFly is already available as a build-yourself kit and comes in at 19 grammes. These smaller units have limited functionality, but this is likely to improve in the immediate future.

I had an interesting conversation earlier today with tech colleagues about whether kids would prefer faster, more maneuverable and smaller drones rather than big scary versions.  I think the jury is still out on that one.

Parrot – like other developers – has cleared the way for development of the drone by creating an open application programming interface.

I recall a similar sense of foreboding in the 1990s when miniature cameras first hit the High Street shops. Companies such as the Spy Shop soon adapted the technology specifically for covert surveillance by embedding it into off-the-shelf light fittings, cigarette packets and alarm clocks. Within months spouse was spying on spouse and parent was spying on child.

In the case of the retail drone I can well imagine that in five years these devices will be purchased by every housing association and local authority to police their properties. They will circle and hover above our heads as a fixed and constant part of our environment, piloted by unseen security enthusiasts who will record and track our movements in infinitely greater detail than even the current generation of CCTV installations can achieve. They will be deployed to trouble spots and areas of perceived risk such as outdoor venues and parks. They will circulate throughout auditoriums and workplaces.

I can think of a dozen ways to safely regulate this potential menace. The question is whether tech enthusiasts will believe that regulation is necessary or desirable. In the meantime developers had better start thinking about the ethical dimension.