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Question of the week

A few articles (and a very cool and funny new music video) in this week’s Download have taken up the issue of personal privacy in the age of drones. While I’ve argued before that these questions are at their core nothing new and not specific to drones, I don’t want to make that argument again here — after all, if we’re being honest it’s pretty easy to understand (if not necessarily agree with) why the public is quick to rankle at the idea of autonomous flying cameras filling the now-empty skies where they live, work and play.

We typically don’t change our broad and fundamental laws — such as privacy laws — every time a new technology emerges. Privacy laws purport to cover violations of all kinds from technology of all kinds, be it from a drone or a smartphone or a telescope in a window (or that guy with branches glued to his face crouching with binoculars in your hedgerow there). And in some lights it does feel petty to focus on this marginal use of a technology that has overwhelming promise for doing so much good in the world (as many articles this week also take up). I mean, do Peeping Toms everywhere shake their head at poor misguided Galileo, not knowing what he really had on his hands up in the window there? (Not the question of the week.)

But drones are an especially powerful and potent new technology — unmanned, removed and automated flight of a small and perhaps hard-to-detect, or attribute, device — and that might present certain new and puzzling challenges for applying and enforcing our existing privacy laws. While I’m still convinced the question of privacy is mostly a matter of time — of education and adapting again to a new technology; remembering that everyone isn’t yearning to look at your backyard or in your bedroom — others have very legit reasons to disagree.

What do you think? Are existing privacy laws enough to cover drones? Or is this technology such a departure that we should consider amending the laws already on the books? Or is this question itself just a distraction from (or extension or symptom of) more important issues — such as fundamental privacy questions in the digital age, or the positive uses of aerial technology?

I’d like to hear from you in the comment section below.

And now, the links that matter:


Nepal aid workers helped by drones, crowdsourcing. A community of nonprofit groups is using satellite imagery, private images and open-source mapping technology assisted by drones to map areas affected by last week’s tragic earthquake, which struck near the capital of Kathmandu and left over 7,000 dead. (Wall Street Journal)

Patrick Meier’s Humanitarian UAV Network has contributed mightily to those relief efforts. You can read what he has to say about the work — both the successes and challenges — here.

Finally: An end in sight? The FAA is in talks with drone industry leaders to consider adopting beyond-visual-line-of-sight flight regulations. According to Reuters, these discussions also increase the chances that “beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) technology will ultimately be accepted by new commercial drone regulations that the FAA is working to finalize within the next two years.” These reforms would go a long way to developing unmanned aircraft that could be used for a variety of business applications such as package delivery, crop monitoring, industrial inspection and, as mentioned above, search and rescue and disaster relief. The FAA’s Manager of UAS Integration, Jim Williams, speaking publicly at the Drone, Data X Conference in Santa Cruz last week, acknowledged the need to relax line of sight regulations: “We understand there’s a lot of value in flying out of line of sight and that’s one of the areas we’re looking to get ahead rapidly in the next few years.”

“Front Row Dave”: Hobbyist pilot Dave Beesmer went on trial Friday, in Ulster Town Court in upstate New York, in what experts believe is “the first American criminal case stemming from alleged unlawful surveillance by drone.” “Front Row Dave” — a fixture at area rock shows — was accused of using his drone to spy on examination rooms at a local medical center. An amateur aerial photographer, Beesmer says he shot footage of the building while his mother was inside for a doctor’s appointment; he wanted to donate the footage of the building’s exterior for them to use in ads and other promotions — and he says his camera can’t see through the tinted windows, anyway. The original felony charge has been dropped to a misdemeanor. (

A group of students from a Jesuit school in Rome presented Pope Francis with a drone. The drone — customized with yellow and white colors of the Vatican flag and bearing the papal emblem — is meant to symbolize “the values of technology in the service of man.” (Washington Post)

High tech happenings

Drones are filming some killer virtual reality videos for brands: “After viewers put on an Oculus headset, they see the world from the perspective of a bee, Patrón’s icon.” (AdWeek)

The street artist KATSU used a drone to vandalize “one of the most highly visible billboards” in Manhattan — a six-story Calvin Klein ad featuring Kendall Jenner. “It turned out surprisingly well,” said KATSU. “It’s exciting to see its first potential use as a device for vandalism,” he added, cheerfully. (WIRED)

Here’s KATSU’s video of the act as it happened.

Sky Atlas: Ben Marcus (creator of the NoFlyZone registry) and Gregory McNeal, a public policy contributor at Forbes, have collaborated on AirMap, an app that takes public input and regulation changes into account to create a dynamic map of where in American airspace it’s currently safe and legal to fly drones.

26 billion trees are cut down every year and only 15 billion are replanted. BioCarbon Engineering seeks to use drones to plant one billion more trees per year. How? Load some drones with seed bombs and fly them out over deforested areas and let them drop. “The company estimates that if you ran around with a sack full of seed bombs you could manually plant 3,000 per day. The drones could do 36,000.” (Huffington Post)


Flite Test’s Will It Fly? The new show builds out a working multirotor model of the Avengers Helicarrier — and tries to land model planes on it as it hovers.

The California electronic group Pomplamoose just put out this very funny and oddly moving video for their cover of Madonna’s “Like a Prayer,” where a girl falls for a peeping drone. Her for the hers of the world?

Fact: Antarctica is beautiful. Words simply won’t work here. (Time)

Parental Advisory: Here’s a real-life enactment of the video game Grand Theft Auto 2, complete with graphic overlay and sound effects (and profanity), shot from a drone.