Last year we wrote about some of the privacy concerns being raised with respect to the operation of commercial drones or UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles). Despite the many actual and potential beneficial uses of drones in search and rescue, emergency response (for example, Typhoon Haiyan), farming and in retail (Amazon’s Prime Air program), persistent fears about government surveillance and snooping neighbours continue unabated.
Drone. AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
Politico recently reported on a new voluntary code of practice being developed by the Obama administration for owners and operators of commercial drones. Although the FAA in the United States has authority over the operation of drones near airports, there is no national policy covering commercial drone operations and no formal rules governing what type of data can be collected by drones.
With the cost of drones continuing to come down, and the number of small and independent drone operators continuing to rise, technological innovation has once again raced ahead of the legislation governing its use. Given that there are so many commercial and private sector operators either preparing to use or actively using drones, it remains to be seen if a voluntary code of practice will be effective in managing drone use and addressing legitimate privacy concerns or if government regulation is the only solution.
Last year we wrote about the imminent influx of high resolution imagery from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones and the great potential this could offer those agencies responding to emergency situations where the effective provision of humanitarian aid relies heavily on access to current, accurate and readily available map data.
When Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda), reportedly the strongest typhoon to ever make landfall, struck the Philippines on the 8th of November 2013 it caused catastrophic destruction and loss of life. The Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (H.O.T) activated Project Haiyan to provide geographic base data for the affected areas.
However as Kate Chapman reported in a project update last month, although a large number of UAVs had been used to collect imagery immediately after the typhoon struck, much of the mapping activity was uncoordinated, resulting in fragmented data sources that were unavailable to the aid agencies. Although UAV imagery can provide much higher resolution data (5-10cm) than is currently available from satellite imagery sources (0.5m), if the data can’t be accessed when required, the relevant agencies don’t know what’s available and from whom or the licensing arrangements prohibit open access to the data, then the transient opportunities to put the data to good use are lost.
Given the increasing miniaturisation, reduced costs and availability of these devices, a register of publicly available UAV data sources, a crowdsourced OpenUAVImagery initiative or the “OpenReconstruction/Open Drone” platform described by the H.O.T. would seem to be the next step towards making the most of this data resource.
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, are an increasingly prevalent part of the technology of modern warfare, law enforcement, aerial photography and photogrammetric survey, and increasingly popular amongst the hobbyist flight fraternity. Joshua Kopstein recently reported on the release of the ARGUS-IS drone equipped with 1.8 gigapixel camera that can observe and record ‘…an area half the size of Manhattan‘, and is capable of detecting and tracking objects as small as six inches from an altitude of 20,000 ft. Although this real-time surveillance technology has obvious appeal for police, public safety and emergency response agencies, and is changing the way much geospatial information will be captured, it also raises many questions about legitimate observation versus a right to privacy. Many civil liberties groups have expressed concerns about inappropriate government surveillance, aerial stalking, drone harassment and the potential for misuse of the information they collect. The Information Commissioner’s Office in the UK recently noted in a draft report on surveillance “In the context of war, consent, privacy, and data protection may be little considered, but in the context of the mundane policing of citizens, such considerations should not be so easily abandoned.” (Surveillance Road Map – A shared Approach to the Regulation of Surveillance in the United Kingdom).
The UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) policy for the operation of UAVs includes:
- All UAVs must operate below 400 feet
- UAVs must remain within 500 m of the operator at all times
- UAVs cannot fly over/within 150 m of congested area of a city, town or settlement
- UAVs must remain at least 50 m clear of any person, vessels, vehicle or structures
- UAVs must have a fail-safe mechanism to terminate the flight following the loss of signal or detection of an interfering signal
So, could I buy a UAV, attach a camera to it and fly it over my neighbour’s garden to see why he’s been clearing such a large patch of ground next to our shared boundary? It’s not in a congested area, the area of interest is more than 50 m away from people, vessels, vehicles and structures, it would be flying below 400 m and the device would never be more than 500 m away from me. Does my concern about any potential development outweigh my neighbour’s right to privacy? In the USA, this type of UAV use will soon be prohibited as a number of states – Texas, Oregon, California and Florida to name a few – seek to introduce legislation making it a criminal offence to take photos from unmanned aircraft without the permission of the property owner. As is often the case, legal safeguards have lagged behind the adoption of new technology but the lawmakers are now catching up. The window of opportunity to “observe” what’s going on next door will soon be closed. Looks like I’m going to have to ask my neighbour myself.