Home > Drones / UAVs, Privacy, Video Surveillance > Drones in urban environments: New helpers in the streets or surveillance machines?

Drones in urban environments: New helpers in the streets or surveillance machines?

February 6, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

Though it does not specifically state that drones can be used for surveillance purposes, German “Bundestag” recently allowed drones as a new classification and part of air traffic if used for traffic purposes (English translation). As heise.de states, this makes way for drones being used in the future not only by security authorities but by private persons and firms as well. This is interesting, since German police have been using drones in recent years already and have been testing new systems. With little success however. Before surveillance and identification of persons, for example at demonstrations, will be possible, some time will go by. This is a good excuse however, to look at UAVs (drones, that is) from a privacy point of view.

UAV use will definitely increase in coming years. It is an active field of research that is being investigated in numerous research projects around the globe. Existing systems are used on a regular basis in wars such as in Afghanistan by US forces. These systems are usually remote-controlled with a human remote pilot flying them, allowing minimum risk when killing people (yes, that’s not very sportsmanlike). In urban areas they have the potential of one day even helping to avoid catastrophes like in Duisburg or detecting riots early. Mirco aerial vehicles (MAV) today are already very small (down to 15cm) and in the future will be as small as insects. They will be piloting themselves and will automatically analyze what is happening on the ground. In several research projects the possibility of collaborating micro-drone swarms, which  stay in the air for a long time or even forever is investigated (check out this interesting publication on MAVs).

In battle-field situations nobody cares about privacy but as soon as they are used in urban, “civilian” applications, privacy becomes an issue.

Of course, any existing laws for spying on persons are valid for UAVs as well. If a helicopter flies over demonstrators or a UAV does not make much difference. The same goes, in principle, for recording video surveillance material or automatically analyzing movement of persons. Today, video surveillance is granted (or not) based on the reason and the place where it is performed. Drones however can change their place of surveillance very fast so new privacy regulations, which consider drones, will be necessary.

Today, persons cannot be identified from such images, so for person surveillance this technology is just not suitable (yet). The horror scenario of UAVs roaming our streets, automatically looking for suspicious persons is not real yet and probably won’t be for some time because it is just not feasible. Applications where drones do make sense are situations where it is too dangerous for humans to perform tasks (such as in war and after catastrophes) and where they can give additional information from a different perspective (for example during football matches, demonstrations and riots).

Today’s technical possibilities (outside the lab) should not be exaggerated, we are not there yet. However, it is good to ask questions about privacy early and that already today these considerations are worked into laws. Ryan Calo, director for privacy and robotics at Stanford, even postulates that drones will eventually INCREASE our personal privacy by being openly visible on the streets and thus triggering a wide-spread privacy debate. Contrary to phone tapping and internet traffic surveillance drones will be a very visible kind of surveillance that will make it much more obvious to discuss privacy issues.

UAVs are a technology to watch, which will make significant technological strides forward in coming years. It will be exciting to see how it and its regulation will develop in the near future.

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