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Is That a Drone In Your Backyard?

We are rapidly turning into a nation of drone enthusiasts. According to a recent Freedom of Information Act request from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), there are now 63 drone launch locations scattered around the United States. These range from those controlled by academic research labs to those from other institutions that sound a bit more threatening – like city police departments, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security. Drones – once a subject for science fiction speculation – are starting to enter our everyday conversations and capture the public’s imagination: Look! It’s the TacoCopter delivering tacos! Sooner or later, we will need to adapt to an urban future where drones regularly buzz overhead. They will be out of view, but not out of mind.

Drones, once relegated to military surveillance use in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, are apparently coming home with our troops. Yes, drones are now crossing over to the civilian sector, where drone building is becoming a pet hobby of the Silicon Valley elite. WIRED’s editor-in-chief Chris Anderson has a drone. Other tech leaders in the Valley are getting into the drone-building game, fascinated by the sheer computing power – all the gyroscopes, accelerometers, cameras and whiz-bang gizmos – that you can build into a tiny drone at a relatively low price (some drones are as cheap as $1500). The paparazzi, looking for new ways to intrude into the personal lives of celebrities, most certainly will experiment with personal drones. Drones are being used for everything from filming scenes in Hollywood movies to monitoring oil spills and other environmental hazards. In the process, they are also becoming the type of object your (tech-savvy) neighbor might have in his or her backyard. The same person who might have flown remote-controlled planes a decade ago is now the type of person who is probably thinking of buying a personal drone.

As the prospect that drones will fly less than 400 feet overhead becomes a near-term reality, it’s easy to see why privacy experts are up in arms. Imagine drones taking aerial photos of real estate properties also swooping down and taking unwanted photos of you in your bedroom. As Farhad Manjoo points out in Slate, these tiny drones could cause big trouble:

“People are using them to monitor traffic, spy on celebrities, take aerial real estate photos, and—thanks to a new federal law that legalizes their flight—almost certainly in a variety of law enforcement missions. The nano drones’ two key features—extreme agility and instant swarming—would seem to raise the stakes in this debate.”

It’s not far-fetched to see the government eventually using these drones to monitor details of crowd gatherings and other public events. (In Russia, at the peak of the pro-democracy protests, rumors swirled that Putin and Medvedev were using drones to spy on activist demonstrations). In the U.S., some legislators are quickly growing concerned about all the video cameras and infrared imaging equipment that’s flying overhead.

That’s just in America. What happens when our enemies get their hands on these drones and turn this technology on us? The Iranians recently claimed to have downed a U.S. RQ-171 surveillance drone, and have also claimed that they now know how to re-engineer them. As we deploy more of these drones on the battlefield, that same story is likely to be replicated again and again — and some of this drone technology may easily slip into the wrong hands. If before we used to worry about the missile gap, now we must worry about the drone gap. As if to underscore this point, it looks like the next Mission: Impossible film (as foreshadowed in Ghost Protocol) will feature Tom Cruise and his wily band from IMF attempting to derail terrorist enemies who have taken over America’s drone fleet. By the time the film makes it into theaters, will it be science fiction fantasy — or science fact?

image: Skyblade Unmanned Aerial Vehicle / Jordan Tan for


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