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High-Altitude Surveillance Drones: Coming to a Sky Near You

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Last week President Obama signed a sweeping aviation bill that, among other things, will open the skies to “unmanned aircraft systems,” more commonly known as drones. Much of the discussion regarding the coming era of domestic drones has been focused on the many important questions regarding their use at low altitudes. To what extent will it be legal, for example, for drones to hover 300 feet above residential neighborhoods snapping pictures into backyards and windows? What level of human-in-the-loop control is needed to ensure safety in a crowded airspace? And how can we stop terrorists from piloting drones at treetop level towards a target?

But there is another portion of the airspace—the stratosphere—that while mostly empty today, will in the coming years will become increasingly populated by gossamer-like, solar-powered drones turning silent, lazy circles in the sky. These drones will stay aloft for years at a time, running on energy collected during the day using solar panels mounted on paper-thin wings. As their slowly turning propellers push them along at bicycle speeds, arrays of high-resolution cameras on their undersides will record the daily comings and goings of the population of entire cities.

The stratosphere lies roughly between 40,000 and 150,000 feet in altitude. Commercial airliners often ply its lower reaches, but above about 55,000 feet the traffic is limited to a few military reconnaissance planes, unmanned weather and scientific balloons, and at rare intervals, a rocket arcing upward on its way to orbit. The stratosphere is mostly empty, cold, and quiet, closer to the blackness of outer space than to the din of human commerce.

Like so much in aviation, that is about to change. The technology to turn the stratosphere into the domain of the drones is already well under development. The Zephyr, a high-altitude, solar-powered drone designed by British company QinetiQ and weighing under 120 pounds despite having a 74-foot wingspan, stayed aloft for two continuous weeks in a summer 2010 test in Arizona. In September 2010, Boeing announced that it had been awarded a contract by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to develop the Solar Eagle, a craft that will eventually be able to fly above 60,000 feet for five continuous years. And many of the information technologies needed perform detailed surveillance from these platforms are already found in common consumer electronics devices.

Of course, permanent eyes in the sky aren’t new. Satellites, after all, have been a constant presence for decades, and the best military reconnaissance satellites can likely deliver stunningly precise pictures of a target of interest. However, spy satellites can’t linger over a single point on the ground. By contrast, stratospheric drones will operate at altitudes that are simultaneously high enough to enable coverage of an entire city and low enough to easily collect and convey detailed images of everything in view.

What, exactly, will these drones be able to see? A lot, as it turns out. They will record the route and speed of every vehicle on the streets. They will observe the movements of individual pedestrians. At night, they will capture the precise moments when the lights in living rooms and bedrooms are turned on and off. The data they acquire, which can be correlated with information from mobile devices and smart meters, will become an important component of the growing digital record of nearly everything we do.

And what of the legal framework for the privacy of the information collected using high-altitude drones? In 1986, the Supreme Court ruled that the police use of a private plane to view otherwise hidden marijuana plants growing in a California back yard did not constitute a violation of the Fourth Amendment because the observations were made from “public navigable airspace.” This precedent suggests that the owners of drones operated in public airspace may initially enjoy broad latitude to use them for surveillance.

Ryan Calo of the Stanford Center for Internet & Society projects that drones will lead to a tightening of privacy protections precisely because they can expose so much formerly private information. For low-altitude operation, this tightening may well occur. It is hard to imagine, for example, that paparazzi and stalkers will enjoy legal protection for the long-term operation of small, camera-equipped helicopter drones above private residences.

But high-altitude drone surveillance that indiscriminately captures the detailed life of an entire city is unlikely to be viewed by the courts as a violation of the Fourth Amendment. Privacy rights, both in the formal legal sense and in terms of the accompanying societal expectations and tolerances, are often tied to the extent of individual targeting involved. For example, most of us do not object to the presence of video surveillance cameras in transit systems, office buildings, and retail stores. We recognize the necessity of this surveillance, and, importantly, we know that the video recording is not preferentially directed towards specific people. In practice, privacy is both an absolute and a relative concept, and we tend to be more accepting of privacy reductions that apply equally to everyone.

Today, no government body is actively and publicly promoting a plan to establish a permanent high-altitude surveillance drone presence above American cities. But because it will soon be inexpensive and easy to do so, and because the information gathered will be considered useful and valuable, it will inevitably happen—not this year, and likely not next year, but almost certainly by the end of the decade.

lllustration of Boeing’s SolarEagle courtesy of Boeing

John Villasenor About the Author: John Villasenor is a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor of electrical engineering at UCLA.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 14 Comments

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  1. 1. foxinwinter 5:16 pm 02/24/2012

    Time to re-read 1984 and Brave New World? I don’t think so. But I’ve been wrong before. We’ll just have to watch and observe.

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  2. 2. N a g n o s t i c 12:59 pm 02/25/2012

    It is time for re-reading 1984, Brave New World and the U.S. Constitution, and it is time for serious consideration of Libertarianism.

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  3. 3. Catamount 1:50 pm 02/25/2012

    I think an easy gut reaction here is to object on grounds of privacy, but as David Brin would be quick to point out, that sort of privacy was dead years ago.

    It’s not 1984 you want to read for insight into this; it’s The Transparent Society you want to read (or perhaps Earth).

    The genie is long out of the bottle. Drones or no, cameras are everywhere, they’re powerful, they’re tiny, they’re cheap. That’s reality, and it’s only going to be more the reality as time goes again, again, drones or no drones.

    So I’m okay with this, I really am, because it’s inevitable anyways as a reality of technology, but there is a stipulation I think we should all demand: If they’re going to put those drones up, over domestic air space, then the feeds of those drones should be public. I want to know where the drones are at all times, what the government is collecting, and I want that data out in the open, on a public website, so that that power is in the hands of all of society, not just a few look-happy military officers and a small circle of politicians.

    Surveillance power is inevitable, and something society can deal with, imo; that power simply can’t be concentrated to a few individuals.

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  4. 4. Gatnos 5:19 pm 02/25/2012

    “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” – 4th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. In a home or dwelling a person has an expectation of privacy, which is protected by the 4th Amendment. However, when a person is out and about they have essentially exposed themselves to the world and have no expectaion of privacy, except for what is on their “person.” The use of surveillance drones to view persons in public places in no way violates the 4th Amendment. However, should said drone be used to look through a window and observe a person in their dwelling or place of business, then a Warrant would be needed. I see no need to get excited about this at all.

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  5. 5. petadamson 2:22 am 02/26/2012

    Come to Scotland. You’ll be safe doing your own thing under the clouds.

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  6. 6. Jerzy New 9:36 am 02/27/2012

    Just shows a need for a new law protecting privacy.

    I am amused that mass media believe that surveillance drones will be used only for rightful causes like catching dangerous criminals and the institutions are able to self-regulate. As if history didn’t provide countless examples of abuse of power.

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  7. 7. CopperCowboy 4:02 pm 02/27/2012

    Just another step on the way to the Corporate Police $tate.

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  8. 8. Jerzy New 4:48 am 02/29/2012

    Will USA repeat history of Soviet Union?

    Soviets created powerful secret services to fight external threats. People at secret services, however, used money, influence, information, plus certain cunning and brutality coming with this job, to get power themselves. Russian government continued for some time as a front of powerful secret services. Finally, KGB people decided to rule directly and kicked out the intermediaries. Relatively public and peaceful elections in current Russia didn’t stop them.

    American Clone of Vladimir Putin – Coming Soon to Elections Near You?

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  9. 9. Jehovah Akbar 3:34 pm 03/2/2012

    I hope they don’t see me fornicating with the detective sargeant’s wife in the backyard.

    i hope they don’t see my teenage daughter sun baking nude.

    I hope they don’t see me peeing on my favorite plants.

    I hope they don’t see my two marijuana plants and bust me because it is legal to commit adultery with the policeman’s wife.

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  10. 10. scilo 3:52 pm 03/2/2012

    Meanwhile, back at Alpha Base Earth, the little datalings are still fighting with traffic cameras! HA HA HAA!

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