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drone surveillance

Contributor(s): Matthew Haughn

Drone surveillance is the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) to capture of still images and video to gather information about specific targets, which might be individuals, groups or environments.

Drone surveillance enables surreptitiously gathering information about a target as captured from a distance or altitude. Drones’ flight capabilities, small size and ability to withstand harsh environments mean they can often survey subjects that might not be accessible otherwise and can access a first-person view (FPV) that would normally be impossible for the photographer.

Drones combined with computer vision, face recognition, object recognition and other tracking technologies are essentially flying robots. Their naturalization into the environment -- sometimes referred to as ubiquitous robotics -- is enabled by the combination of networking, robotics and artificial intelligence (AI). Advanced AI-capable drones can adapt to their environment and perform many autonomous tasks like following a subject and filming while they move through an area.

For drones under 35Kg, no special permits are required for private citizens. Beyond 35kg, special flight operations certificates are required. Personal drones over that weight are rare, however. For commercial purposes, the Federal Aviation Administration requires a certificate of authorization for drone operation. Other relevant regulations include FAA rules barring flight above 400ft or within two miles of an airport.

Drone-related security and privacy rights in the United States are often regulated at the state level and federal laws are still being formulated. Legislation has not kept pace with increasing use of drones. Some states ban all aerial photography of private property. The gray areas of privacy and security issues related to drone operation can result in some unexpected and possibly ambiguous situations. In Kentucky, for example, William Merideth was charged with destruction of property for shooting down a drone that he claimed was spying on his daughter in his own back yard.

Drone surveillance is used to gain intelligence against enemy targets by government agencies and against business competitors for high-level competitive intelligence (CI) gathering. Other applications of drone surveillance include law enforcement, private investigation, spying, disaster recovery, search and rescue, drone journalism, photography, Lidar surveys and military reconnaissance. In the case of military operations, surveillance drones may also be weaponized.

This was last updated in August 2015

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