‘Drones have the unique capability to peer into private homes and businesses and listen to private conversations. Obviously, civilian drones will not be the same as those used overseas for national security operations but the drone exhibited to the judiciary committee in the hearing last year was very small and very light weight. Such drones can take high definition photos and videos and even transmit them to the user’s iPad.’ (Senator Dianne Feinstein testifying before the Senate Commerce Committee as a special witness during a hearing on drone policy, Januray 15, 2014).
Domestic drones are a part of our future. Californian drone maker 3D Robotics sells around 3000 autopilot systems each month (used to build self-made drones), while it is estimated that Chinese firm DJI Innovations sells ten times as many. That means ‘300,000 drones are being put into the skies this year alone.’
The 3DR IRIS ($750) made by 3D Robotics comes with an integrated GoPro-compatable camera mounting bracket
This is at least is according to Domestic Drone Countermeasures (DDC), who are running a Kickstarter to fund the development and production of a Personal Drone Detection System (PDDS). The basic system comprises three boxes – one Command and Control Module and two Detection Sensor Nodes, although further nodes can be added to increase detection range using meshnet technology. Whenever a drone passes within 50 feet (15 meters) of a sensor, the owner will be alerted via an alarm or message sent to their smart phone or tablet.
As domestic drones become more popular, they present a serious privacy risk, since they can be outfitted with high definition cameras, IR sensors, and other invasive technologies. DDC make it clear that their system is not designed to counter military drones (‘they fly too high and are too sophisticated’), but may be effective at countering the expected proliferation of law enforcement use of domestic drones (which, as Glen Greenwald argues, poses a grave threat to civil liberties, and will allow the likes of the NSA to expand their blanket surveillance outside of the digital realm, and into the physical).
The Phantom FC40 ($499) from DJI Innovations
In addition to this, there is a very real danger of drones crashing and causing serious injury to members of the public.
In many countries there is little or no legislation regulating commercial drone use, and in the US not only are there no rules in place, but there are no plans to introduce drone legislation until 2015 at the earliest (although drones are not permitted to operate over congested area such as Manhattan for safety reasons).
‘Drones are becoming more capable all the time and this is why it’s alarming. They fly with payloads like still cameras, video cameras, infrared detectors, thermal detectors, among other things, and they are already being used for surveillance… Though there are legitimate uses for domestic drones, there is still concern about invasion of privacy and surveillance by various entities,’ says Amy Ciesielka, founder of DDC.
The Kickstarter is looking to raise $8,500, and a basic 3-box kit starts at $499 (there is of course a risk that the Kickstarter will fail).
Part of an infographic made by Maps of the World, entitled ‘Should Drones Fly Commercially?
Update & Clarification 26 June 2014
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has always maintained that commercial (as opposed to recreational) use of drones is illegal, but this was overturned in March by a federal court ruling which said the FAA had exceeded its mandate when declaring all commercial use of drones illegal (effectively declaring commercial drones legal).