Is That a Drone On Your Shoulder or Are You Just Happy to See Me?
October 31, 2016 (Fault Lines) — E-Commerce colossus Amazon announced that earlier this month it had been granted a patent for a small drone-like device that could be used by police and firefighters. The patent drawings even depict a potential scenario with a drone docking station mounted on a police officer’s shoulder. The patent filing outlines some potential uses:
- Finding a lost child whereby the drone’s camera will identify a person’s face or perhaps a barcode printed on the kid’s clothes
- Locating a vehicle when a person can’t find it a parking lot by recognizing trait such as the make, model or color
- In search and rescue missions to find downed airliners, sailors or ships lost at sea
- To identify people trapped in a burning building
- Following a suspect so that a cop car could cut off the runner
- Recording stunts or other activities, effectively replacing current helmet cameras.
How useful would such a device really be for law enforcement as proposed?
Police officers might not be too thrilled having the thing mounted on their shoulder, presuming it’s run on tiny propellers; a gust of wind might have it chewing your earlobe to shreds. Mounting it on a vehicle rather than an officer might be better.
The patent documentation depicts many scenarios, like:
Of course, the UAV can be used for many other purposes. In some examples, the UAV can be used by military or police to clear dangerous areas. In this case, the UAV may have predefined tasks such as, for example, “clear left,” “clear right,” or “clear stairwell.” In this manner, the UAV can move around a corner formed by two hallways or walls, for example, and provide a video feed of the area. In this manner, military and police forces can clear buildings without putting themselves in harm’s way.
Police Dash Cam
In a specific example, UAVs can act as a mobile dash cam for police (and others). Many modern police cars are equipped with cameras on the dashboard and often include microphones. Depending upon conditions, the position of the police car relative to action, and other factors, however, dash cams do not always provide usable video or audio. This may be the result of a foot chase moving the action away from the police vehicle, for example, or simply because the dash cam is not pointed in the right direction.
This scenario might also be that the cops don’t want anything caught on camera, and illuminates a reason why they might not be so eager to embrace a seemingly cool toy. Advances in technology such as this have a way of removing the ability of the individual officer to contain information about that officer’s behavior or actions. Cops hate that.
Certain members of the public might not be too eager to embrace it either. It’s likely that introduction of such technology will spawn a whole new hacker movement dedicated to either destroying them or creating chaos with the things. You might want to check out a most excellent episode of Black Mirror a new show on Netflix to get an idea of how this sort of thing can go awry. The episode is called ‘Hated in the Nation.’
Folks concerned with preserving the tattered remnants of the 4th Amendment would, of course, be very alert if such a device were put in use because it could be used to conduct warrantless searches by buzzing around where the officer has no business being, like in your car, in your house or outside your bedroom window. Some of that is already a concern. Shankar Narayan, technology and liberty project director for the American Civil Liberties Union in Seattle, expressed concern that:
Because the drones would be so small, they might be able to collect information without subjects’ knowledge. In a traffic stop, for example, a drone could fly around the vehicle conducting a search of the inside of the car without an officer ever establishing probable cause for such a search. That’s just one of the ways you could try to make an end-run around the constitutional protections.
Amazon will be lucky if they can see some fruit come of their drone delivery vision; they face the usual regulatory obstacles when introducing new technology. Currently the FAA doesn’t allow Unmanned Aerial Vehicles to deliver anything, as the drone is required to be within view of the operator. They are also currently restricted to daylight and twilight with appropriate lights.
To be sure, cops want drones. But they are expensive and current technology has not kept up with their vulnerability to weather, limitations of electronic signals or pissed-off hawks. Cop mounted drones would be subject to many legal, technological and natural obstacles, but if they reach the stage of practical deployment, now they know where they’ll have to buy them.