For many people, the word “drone” conjures images of military Predators raining Hellfire missiles on Afghan villages. For others, a drone is a harmless, quadcopter toy. To be clear, in this article, I’m not talking about military UAVs. But as it becomes cheaper and easier to fly an unmanned aerial vehicle carrying a camera or other payload wherever one wants, it’s also becoming cheaper and easier for ordinary citizens to use remote-controlled technology for good – and for bad.
The advent of relatively inexpensive, lightweight, lithium ion batteries combined with ever smaller cameras has led to a boom in low-cost consumer drones, starting for as little as $60 for the Hubsan X4 or one from UDI for $76. Of course, at this price, don’t expect great video quality. But for just $299, you can get the Parrot AR Drone 2.0. It shoots in HD from either a forward or downward-facing camera, and the best feature is that you can control it from your phone – and see right on your phone screen exactly what the aerial camera sees. More popular for videographers is the DJI Phantom series, with better range and more precise controls. These start at about $479 for a version that can hold a GoPro, and up to $1300 for the Phantom 2 Vision+, which even allows the operator to tilt the built-in HD camera while in flight.
But the real story isn’t about toys – it’s about the way this rapidly advancing technology could change our lives – for good AND bad.
Drones offer whole new ways of invading others’ privacy. One could easily spy over a neighbor’s fence or in a third-story window. Increased awareness that most drones have cameras will leave high-rise apartment dwellers scurrying for their robes at the sight of a hovering quadcopter. Hackers recently demonstrated a technique for mounting a Wi-Fi interceptor on a drone (though this same technique could be done even more surreptitiously from a laptop in a parked car or on a café table). I don’t anticipate this method of hacking will be commonplace; the targets are rich on the ground, but the proof of concept will make for some good movie scenes about intercepting data.
While any new technology can be put to nefarious uses, the societal benefits that drones bring are plentiful. Like cellphone video before them, drones are democratizing news-gathering. Drones shot the most powerful footage of protests in Kiev, Thailand, and Venezuela – getting images that would otherwise put journalists at risk. They can be used for low-cost crop or wildlife surveys. And don’t even get me started on the surfing videos shot by drones instead of helicopters. Google and Facebook have each recently bought drone companies that promise to bring airborne Wi-Fi to regions without wired infrastructure – using solar-powered planes that charge during the day in order to continue flying through the night.
Outweighing the Dangers
My opinion? Concerns about increased invasion of privacy are completely overblown. These things are LOUD and challenging to precisely control. It’s not like one could sneak up and take a picture of you without you knowing. That’s much easier with a cellphone. And about cellphones… Remember when they first got cameras? People freaked out! But society adapts, etiquette evolves, as does the law. Already, regulations are in place for drones– no flying higher than 400 feet, keep away from populated areas, and remote-controlled craft must remain in the operator’s field of vision. Privacy laws are pretty well established too. So as long as privacy rights are respected and laws enforced, the potential benefits of new consumer drones are only just beginning to be realized.