Commercial Drones and Privacy

A couple of years ago I wrote an article on the Bassetti Foundation website about the use of drones and other robot devices in warfare. Times have moved on however, and now drones are much smaller and cheaper, so you do not need a multi-billion dollar budget to buy one.

a quadcopter drone

A commercial quadcopter drone

To give you an idea, $600 US will buy you this quadcopter. Perfect for the beginner, plate already mounted for the camera and can also carry a small payload.

If you want something that resembles an aeroplane why not take a look at  the CropCam (before it takes a look at you). $6999 I grant you but a fine machine. Hand launched it is guided by its GPS navigation system, automatically lands and takes pictures, flies at 60 Km an hour and can be fitted with a video. You set up the GPS and the autopilot does the rest.

As the name suggests, this vehicle is aimed at the commercial market, look at your crops, find your animals and catch your daughter in a haystack with the boy next door.

The haystack incident might sound like a joke but it is really a serious problem. There are no regulations about where you fly your new machine in the USA. The market for Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) is in massive expansion as farmers, security companies, private detectives, news organizations, traffic and transport management companies and many others see the potential in such snooping power. The machines can be fitted with face recognition software, thermal imaging and license plate readers, and many see this as problematic.

A couple of months ago the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) launched a code of conduct for the industry, in the light of a new law in the USA that allows anyone to operate one of these systems (see the Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act of 2012).

Privacy groups are up in arms however, claiming that the mass use of this type of technology will lead to massive infringements upon personal liberty, and they take no comfort from the code of conduct. Voluntary as it is, the code is extremely general, has no enforcement mandate, contains no discussion at all about the myriad potential privacy and safety issues raised by unrestricted drone use over U.S. airspace, and there is nothing about the intended audience or user.

One US Senator however is trying to take action. Sen. Rand Paul has introduced a bill that aims at protecting Americans against unwanted drone surveillance. Read about it here.

The present regulations state that 400 feet above your house you enter neutral territory, a bit like international waters off the coast, so anyone has the right to fly their drone 401 feet over your house. These machines are small so you probably wouldn’t notice it, but as we know cameras are good nowadays. At a few hundred dollars for a vehicle they are becoming available to almost anyone, and certainly any business or organization.

Do you think this could become a problem? Is it yet another invasion of privacy or a justified use of technology? I am all ears.

Luck in Scientific Work

Luck In Scientific Work

Last week I wrote a post about Alexander Fleming’s luck in discovering penicillin. I want to continue this discussion this week, as I left it (deliberately) one-sided.

Fleming went on holiday without cleaning his dishes, some mold grew that seemed to secrete something that killed some types of bacteria. Had he cleaned the dishes, he would not have made the discovery and nobody would know his name today.

But we have to acknowledge that this little piece of luck found itself in a scientific laboratory, and it was not luck that led Fleming to understanding the importance of the mold. Other people might not have noticed what was happening for example, only a chemist working with bacteria would have understood the importance of the gap developing between the mold and the bacteria..

In effect, we could see the growth of the mold was part of the experiment process, even though it was unforeseen. Without the scientific process it becomes merely mold!

Here is an article about other discoveries that owe something to luck.

Luck as a Scientist

From the various articles in the Journal of Responsible Innovation special issue on luck, I learn that luck is seen by scientists as playing a greater role in science’s social worlds, rather than the experiments themselves. Who receives your project (luckily someone who shares your approach maybe) could be important in terms of whether it receives funding or is rejected. Meeting someone in a lift who gives you a tip about something, or flicking through the cable TV in your hotel room and coming across a program that sets off a chain reaction in your thinking that leads to an understanding, lucky events that may lead to something big.

Obviously, we can take this as far back as we want, and bring in global political events such as wars and pandemics, but lucky encounters on a local level do seem to be important in building careers and carrying out scientific processes.

Luck in the Future

Now the big question then. What about luck in the future regarding something that you have developed yourself as a scientist?

Let’s take the invention of the electronic joystick by SEGA in 1969 as en example. This revolutionary control system boasted a fire button that enabled players of their Missile game to steer their missile towards enemy tanks on the screen. Little did the developers know (nor could they have predicted) the uses that this technology would be put to in the future: remote surgery techniques, flying modern jet aircraft, and flying unmanned drones over foreign lands, executing people from the comfort of an office in the USA.

There is a risk that your discovery will go on to be used for things that you might not like. You may be lucky or you may be unlucky, and may receive credit for having bettered the world, or unlucky and face huge criticism in the future.

Drone Wars


Mauricio loves remote control aircraft. When I bought a model plane for my son he was the first round to see it, he told me how to strengthen the wings, and recounted tales of daredevil antics and crashes in the heart of South America.

Now he wants to get a license to pilot a drone, because now in Italy where he lives you need a license, which is not the case in the USA.

Drone Use and the Law

Drone use is becoming ever more common, but there have been a few pieces in the press about people getting into trouble for drone use.

In October, a European football qualification match was abandoned after a drone carrying inflammatory language on a large tail was flown over the pitch. It’s appearance caused a scuffle between players that got so out of hand that the referee had to lead the players off and later abandon proceedings.

In what I might see as a copycat incident a week later, a man was arrested after a drone was seen flying over Manchester City’s stadium during a game. Read more about these events on the BBC.

This week reports abound of a near miss at Heathrow airport in London involving an unidentified drone. An Airbus carrying 180 people almost collided with the drone that is too small to appear on radar. Police are searching for the pilot. This article describes the event and goes on to explain flying rules in the UK for such machines. The owner of the drone will be in serious trouble when the police catch him, and could face fines of up to half a million pounds.

In a related incident police are investigating reports of drone flights over a nuclear power station. Once again in October but this time in France, police received reports of a series of drone flights over nuclear power stations. The flights were at night, and seem to have been coordinated, and this fact has set a few alarm bells ringing with the French authorities. Were they spies, terrorists, anti nuclear campaigners or just people having a laugh? Who knows? Read more here.

Drone use is becoming ever more common and the trend is bound to increase, but given the problems above this growth is certainly not unproblematic. In a previous post I wrote about privacy implications, and earlier this year Christopher wrote about Amazon’s possible drone delivery service. Find the links here.

On a scientific note NASA are developing a biodegradable drone. It is made from mushroom and cloned paper wasp spit, and the materials used are hailed as possibly offering a new substitute for plastic. If the machine crashes it simply biodegrades leaving no trace, so could be used in sensitive areas without fear of contamination.

Certainly one to look out for.