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Cops’ Sky-High Hopes

by Michael Dean Thompson

Drones as a first responder are the latest cop fad in America. They hope that drones will be able to arrive on the scene faster than a patrol officer and provide the lay of the land for arriving cops. Across the country, more than 1,400 police departments have begun deploying drones, according to the Electronic Frontiers Foundation (“EFF”).

In addition, analysts at Teal Group have predicted that the global civil government market, which includes border patrol and police, will climb to $140 billion over this decade. Along with vendors like Skydio and DJI, startups like Paladin Technologies are angling to get their fingers into that massive pie. Those companies are reaching for the sky after the Federal Aviation Administration has relaxed its rules to allow for police, fire departments, and even construction companies as well as others, to fly drones without having to maintain a pilot on the ground within line of sight. So, much like how the U.S. military flies drones in Iraq from an air-conditioned building in Nevada, a contractor at a police station, or across the globe, can pilot a drone in complete comfort.

Paladin is one tech startup working to stake its own claim in the drone market. Its drones come equipped with gunshot detectors and optional infrared cameras. Forbes was recently given a chance to test drive one of its bots. From his home in London and over his Wi-Fi (which he described as patchy), a Forbes’ writer was able to pilot a drone over southeast Houston. When he flipped on the augmented reality, it showed him street names and house numbers. The drone’s infrared cameras were able to deliver false-colored people, dogs, and some chickens in a backyard. In addition, he boasts that by zooming in he was able to view “each sweating blade of grass.” He adds that piloting the drone requires only keyboard controls, “mimicking the experience of a first-person action game.” Maybe the more common phrasing of first-person shooter was a little too on the nose.

The capabilities of drones like these are exciting for cops who envision early warning from remote operators at dangerous scenes. Already, robots have been used to deliver everything from pizza to bombs by terrified cops. And there is no denying that drones equipped with high resolution cameras can reveal the tenor of an unfolding event. Yet, it is what else those cameras and microphones (for the gunshot detectors) can do that generates concern from groups like EFF.

Memorial Villages Police Department, along with Paladin, is attempting to alleviate some of the privacy concerns. Rather than deploying drones from a helipad in secret, they launch it from a pod right outside the department. They likewise claim to leave their flight logs open to the public. While it may not be as open as leaving the flight video open to an ombudsman who has the authority to share it, it is a start.

Paladin has also incorporated flight features that point the cameras to the horizon while the drone is en route. That is, however, easily overridden by the pilots. Paladin has high hopes that by recording the video from every drone flight, in their entirety for later review, it will reduce temptations of voyeur cops to invade the privacy of others, like the backyard full of chickens in Houston that was scanned both in infrared and the visual spectrum by the curious London reporter.

The privacy implications go far beyond the peeping cop. The war in Ukraine has illustrated the complexities of drones flying where the signal can be overridden. In this case, that would allow the drone and its feeds to either be turned off or against the cops. Given its gamer-like web interface, it is not too hard to imagine hackers not even needing to override the signal, choosing to hack the interface directly instead and doing their own peeping. The high-resolution images could also be passed through a facial recognition system by the cops as nearby vehicles are cataloged by the automatic license plate reader so that those who have the misfortune to be near an event, or look similar to someone who was, are forever associated with a crime by link analysis software. Women from cities like Houston, where abortion is a crime, could be tagged attending women’s health services in other states, even if only because cops were using the drone to monitor a pro-choice rally in the vicinity.

As artificial intelligence (“AI”) continues to improve, so does its capacity with games. In fact, AI has already started surpassing human abilities at some action games, not just games like Go. It might not be too much longer until fleets of roving AI piloted drones monitor the streets, record faces, listen to calls via onboard cell-site simulators, and more. And yet, even that may be preferable to an outsourced contractor who finds the backyard pool a little too interesting.   


Source: Forbes

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