Drone Manufacturers Are Amping Up Surveillance Capabilities In Response To Demand From Government Agencies
from the watched-over-by-machines-of-everlasting-antagonism dept
The CBP loves its drones. It can’t say why. I mean, it may lend them out to whoever comes asking for one, but there’s very little data linking hundreds of drone flights to better border security. Even the DHS called the CBP’s drone program an insecure mess — one made worse by the CBP’s lenient lending policies, which allowed its drones to stray far from the borders to provide dubious assistance to local law enforcement agencies.
The CBP’s thirst for drones — with or without border security gains — is unslakeable. Thomas Brewster reports for Forbes that the agency is very much still in the drone business. It may no longer be using Defense Department surplus to fail at doing its job, but it’s still willing to spend taxpayer money to achieve negligible gains in border security. And if the new capabilities present new constitutional issues, oh well.
This year, America’s border police will test automated drones from Skydio, the Redwood City, Calif.-based startup that on Monday announced it had raised an additional $170 million in venture funding at a valuation of $1 billion. That brings the total raised for Skydio to $340 million. Investors include blue-chip VC shops like Andreessen Horowitz, AI chipmaker Nvidia and even Kevin Durant, the NBA star.
The CBP is not alone. It has used government drones and private party drones to engage in border surveillance. But as prices continue to fall and the gap between government and private capabilities continues to narrow, the most bang for taxpayer buck may also be the most banging of constitutional rights only minimally observed near our nation’s borders.
For the inland police, it’s the same thing. Buy first and let the courts sort it out. Capabilities move drone surveillance far past the limitations of mounted cameras and law enforcement officer eyes and ears. Pervasive, continuous surveillance is only a few dollars away. Sometimes, it’s even free (as in taxpayer-funded lunches, not free as in freedom.)
By Forbes’ calculation, based on documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and Skydio’s public announcements, more than 20 police agencies across the U.S. now have Skydios as part of their drone fleets, including major cities like Austin and Boston, though many got one for free as part of a company project to help out during the pandemic.
The tech sector gains. So do its government patrons. Caesar has been rendered unto, but unto citizens, what? Well, the opportunity to be surveilled in greater detail for pennies on the dollar.
[Skydio] claims to be shipping the most advanced AI-powered drone ever built: a quadcopter that costs as little as $1,000, which can latch on to targets and follow them, dodging all sorts of obstacles and capturing everything on high-quality video. Skydio claims that its software can even predict a target’s next move, be that target a pedestrian or a car.
Seems like a problem. Surely we can count on the multiple layers of oversight to ensure we’re not just characters in surveillance fanfic composed by people who never met a dystopia they haven’t liked.
Nope. Skydio is run by all-American boys who see themselves as updated Hardy Boys, providing tools to law enforcement to track down The Smugglers of Pirates Cove or whatever. The heads of Skydio rolled through MIT and Google before settling down to sell cheap surveillance gear to law enforcement agencies. And now they’re lobbying the FAA to obtain clearance for surveillance drones to operate in air traffic space — something the FAA tends to deny to hobbyists and researchers due to the possibility of interfering with airport operations.
Skydio has some big competitors in the market. DJI has taken the lead in supplying all and sundry with drones. But the company has taken a hit due to its link to Chinese manufacturing. Skydio is all about its USA location. It may use some Chinese components, but it assembles its products domestically, making it a safer bet for government agencies that have to comply with the latest wind-guided legislation thrust upon it by legislators who love scoring political points more than they love serving their constituents.
It’s not just the CBP and a handful of local cops using Skydio’s drones — ones capable of keeping a very close eye on the movements of multiple people at one time. The DEA has also ordered some high-end Skydio drones to help it with whatever it imagines to be its primary purpose at this point. (The Drug War has been lost. We can only steal from the wallets of those still on the battlefield.)
DJI is hamstrung by anti-Chinese activity. But it will be back. Skydio — which sells high-end cameras mounted to high-end drones — doesn’t face these obstacles. The winner of this arms race really doesn’t matter. Drones will ultimately take over the job done by aircraft with higher buy-in costs and higher maintenance requirements.
And in the CBP’s case, the eventual winners of this tech race will circle overland, unrestricted by constitutional niceties. The CBP is mostly out of the reach of courts and case law. Anything within 100 miles of a border (or port) [or international airport] is considered fair game for intrusive searches and surveillance. We have people in power who can change this. But it seems unlikely they will. A vague threat is all that’s needed to expand government power. Reigning it back in requires thousands of dollars and voluminous legal arguments. The status quo only requires a shrug.