Google Using Spy Drones?

Video posted in 2007

Google is Flying a Quadcopter Surveillance Robot, Says Drone Maker
By Clay Dillow
Posted 08.09.2010 at 2:58 pm

There's no question that the future of warfare, espionage, and clandestine operations is moving rapidly toward reliance on drone aircraft. But should citizens grow restless when this technology moves into the private sector? A German drone maker claims Google is trialing one of its drones, a battery-powered surveillance quadcopter previously used by UK police and special forces. What the search giant and alleged Wi-Fi data collector plans to do with the drone is unclear, but it seems likely that this isn't going to sit well with privacy advocates.

The drone, made by Microdrones GmbH, can stay in the air for more than an hour, photographing large swaths of territory autonomously as it goes. It can also hover, providing aerial surveillance over a single target area for just as long.

Google's interest in such a drone is most likely its ability to supplement its Google Earth service, which currently relies on aerial and satellite photos to overlay Google Maps with actual bird's eye images of the earth. But Google is in hot water -- particularly in Europe -- for its collection of personal Wi-Fi data by its army of Street View cars that drive around collecting all those street images provided by that service. Street View itself has been called an invasion of privacy because it photographs people without their knowledge or consent.

It's tough to make a case that shooting photos on a public street is an invasion of privacy, but adding an aerial surveillance drone to the mix could stir the ire of privacy advocates and could raise legal issues in some countries as well. Assuming Google is only toying with the idea of raising a drone air force to provide cheap and up-to-date aerial images for Google Earth, this doesn't seem like such a big deal.

But given the fact that Google has a history of prompting privacy complaints and that the drone it acquired was designed with a military/surveillance nature, it will be interesting to see what shakes out of this wrinkle in the Google story. UK aircraft regulations have already been amended to reflect the new and growing role of surveillance drones in society and the FAA is currently considering how the U.S. might integrate commercial drones into American skies. Somewhere out there privacy rights, aviation law, and commercial interests are going to collide, and should Google roll out a fleet of camera-laden drone aircraft, the ensuing reactions of citizens and state could mark the preliminary steps in defining which direction our drone culture is heading.

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Google experimenting with spy drones, says German maker

By Lewis Page
Posted in Applications, 9th August 2010 13:20 GMT

Global small-ads colossus Google is trialling a small battery-powered camera drone of a type previously used by the UK police and special forces, according to reports. It's thought that the flying spyeyes might add a new dimension to the company's controversial "Street View" picture database, compiled by fleets of camera cars driving along roads.

The drone in question is made by German maker Microdrones GmbH, formerly in the news as supplier to the Merseyside police - and, it seems certain, previously to elements of the UK special forces. Microdrones chief exec Sven Juerss told German biz mag Wirtschaft Woche at the weekend that his firm has supplied one drone to Google already and that he has hopes of orders for "dozens" more in future.

"The UAVs are well suited to provide more timely recording of the map service Google Earth," said Juerss, suggesting that his products would supplement the aerial photography and satellite pics used by Google as a display option in its Maps and Earth apps.

Predictably, however, privacy advocates feared that the drones would instead be used to provide an ultra-intrusive variant on the firm's controversial Street View service, which tacks on imagery from camera cars to Google's mapping products (which also, famously, slurp up data on local WiFi nets as they go).

A battery-powered md4-1000 quadcopter can stay up for over an hour, navigating autonomously the while, supplying pictures of a large area as it passes over. Alternatively such a machine can hover in place as an airborne spyeye, though this would forfeit any serious area coverage.

In the UK use of small, lightweight UAVs of this type was formerly unregulated under a provision allowing model and toy aircraft enthusiasts to pursue their pastimes without red tape. However, following the furore over the Merseyside police machine, the UK rules were amended such that any aircraft capable of surveillance - no matter how small - must be registered with the authorities.

The likeliest use of the new Googlecraft would seem to be the production of aerial photography more cheaply than the ads colossus can buy it from the usual suppliers, so furnishing Google with yet more cheap searchable content to drive eyeballs to its adverts. Such imagery doesn't seem likely to be significantly more intrusive than existing offerings.

Nonetheless, the drones' silent operation and previous use by police and secret military units seems sure to trigger a fresh panic among those concerned over privacy - and it's certainly true that Google has form in this area, albeit regarding electronic rather than visual data in recent times.

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