Last week, a Virginia House panel approved a two-year moratorium on drone use within the state. In December, Berkeley’s City Council debated a similar proposal from its Peace and Justice Commission. The commission wanted to prohibit the city from purchasing, borrowing, testing or using drones, or allowing “drones in transit.” Hobbyists would, however, have been allowed to use drones which didn’t carry cameras or audio surveillance equipment. The legislation was shot down because, as Berkeley Councilman Gordon Wozniak argued, “Berkeley doesn’t have jurisdiction over its airspace and can’t enforce it unless we buy Patriot missiles to shoot things down.” Both of these bills were prompted by law enforcement officials wanting to use drones for surveillance and intelligence gathering.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) calls this “spying.”
Vivek Wadhwa is Vice President of Innovation and Research at Singularity University and Arthur & Toni Rembe Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University. His other academic appointments include Harvard, Duke and Emory Universities as well as the University of California Berkeley.
These are the harbingers of debates to come as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) moves towards approving the use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems for law enforcement. Groups such as the ACLU are working to stop this because of concerns over privacy. As M. Ryan Calo, my colleague at Stanford Law School and Director for Privacy and Robotics at the Center for Internet & Society, has written, U.S. privacy laws don’t address these issues. This means we are in for some significant legislative battles on Capitol Hill and in the Supreme Court. Calo says these “could be just the visceral jolt society needs to drag privacy law into the twenty-first century.”
No doubt, privacy is an important issue. But this is going to be the least of our concerns as drone technologies advance further. We are entering the “drone age” writes drone-builder Chris Anderson, whose company 3D Robotics sells drone kits to mix and match capabilities. With sensors, optics, and embedded processors advancing exponentially and prices dropping precipitously, do-it-yourself-ers are building even more sophisticated and smaller drones than what the U.S. government had a few years ago.
But you don’t have to be a DIY-er. The Parrot AR.Drone can be purchased on Amazon.com for $299. This quadcopter transmits 720p high-definition streaming video to an iPad or smartphone used to control it. The drone is equipped with a three-axis accelerometer, gyroscope, and magnetometer, and also pressure and ultrasound sensors. Two or three decades ago, such sensors would have cost millions of dollars and weighed hundreds of pounds.
These drones provide useful capabilities for peeping toms or other criminals watching out for law enforcement. But they become a real threat when equipped with weapons, as a hobbyist who calls himself “Milo Danger” showed by mounting a paintball gun on a DIY drone. In a video, he demonstrated a drone flying and firing at stationary targets. The drone could as easily have been equipped with an assault gun, grenade, or Semtex explosives.
Current generations of DIY drones are controlled by Wi-Fi, so the distances they can travel are limited. But it isn’t hard to add autopilot capability to drones, allowing them to fly on their own for several miles. A smartphone, for example, has the processing power and additional sensors needed. Face-recognition technology on smartphones has also advanced to the point where it can identify an individual in a crowd. This means a teenager can, today, build a device similar to what the military uses to hunt terrorists in Afghanistan.