Design

No Drones Over My Back Yard, Google's Schmidt Warns


A Draganflyer X6 six-rotor remote controlled helicopter at the Grand Valley Model Airfield in Mesa County, Colorado

Photograph by Chris Francescani/Corbis

A Draganflyer X6 six-rotor remote controlled helicopter at the Grand Valley Model Airfield in Mesa County, Colorado

Privacy watchdogs, you can breath a bit easier. Google (GOOG) won’t be trading in its fleet of Street View cars for neighborhood-mapping surveillance drones any time soon—that is, if Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt has any say in the matter.

In comments made to the Guardian, Schmidt called for international regulation of civilian drone technology and, going a step further, for an outright ban of inexpensive “everyman” minidrones. Schmidt’s comments are the most forceful yet by a technology executive on the need to protect individuals’ privacy from a promising high-tech growth sector.

To underscore his concern, Schmidt gave the example of warring neighbors and how, for a few hundred dollars, a dispute could erupt into a 24-7 surveillance state over your property. “How would you feel if your neighbor went over and bought a commercial observation drone that they can launch from their back yard,” he asked the Guardian. “It just flies over your house all day. How would you feel about it?”

In response to his own question, he added: “It’s got to be regulated. … It’s one thing for governments, who have some legitimacy in what they’re doing, but have other people doing it … It’s not going to happen.”

The Washington (D.C.) privacy watchdog, the Center for Democracy & Technology, welcomed Schmidt’s comments on Monday. “This definitely moves the ball forward,” said Joseph Lorenzo Hall, senior staff technologist at CDT. “The fact that Google is concerned with privacy tells me they have learned a lot about privacy, new technologies, and the pushback from the public.”

“The industry side sees a lot of potential in drone deployment,” he added. “We’ve been hearing a lot that this is not the right thing for the FAA to be regulating.”

It will be at least another two years before the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration will rule on how unmanned aerial vehicles can be used by companies and civilians. Meanwhile, newer and cheaper models are being developed at an impressive clip. The CDT, for one, is pushing for rules that keep the public informed on the types of drones in the skies, including their surveillance capabilities and how long they can hover overhead. In addition, the CDT would like the drones to carry a detailed identifier code, equivalent to an “N-Number” that all manned commercial aircraft display that tells you who is the owner and/or operator.

“Our big concern is that the people on the ground know what’s above them,” Hall said. “From a data collection standpoint, what are they collecting? From a capability standpoint, can this stay up in the air for 30 days? These unmanned aircraft can do a lot of things that manned aircraft cannot.”

Warner writes about innovation for Bloomberg Businessweek. Follow him on Twitter @bernhardwarner.

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