Saturday, 8 March 2008

Microdrones - The New Spy In The Sky

The Telegraph reports that British Transport Police are now using a Microdrone - a small, almost silent, remote controlled helicopter - to crack down on metal thefts on railways. The contraptions can record still and moving video, and beam pictures back to their operator, who can be up to 500 yards away. They're also capable of squirting water at people, which, apparently, the bobbies can later identify as "their" so-called SmartWater.

From a technological point of view, it's very impressive, and I can't fault the legitimate use of such a device in the sort of operation BTP have in mind - after all, theft of metals from a railway could be a very dangerous thing (for the public, obviously. Who cares what happens to the thieves!).

But what about illegitimate uses? And who else has got these things? Yes, they're expensive - about £25,000 - but that's not such a huge sum, these days. The manufacturers suggest they can be used for all kinds of things, including police work and journalism. I just bet they can, too! Unfortunately, that doesn't inspire a great deal of confidence - would you fancy the idea of a silent helicopter hovering outside your bedroom window, say?

I certainly wouldn't, and I should imagine quite a few politicians, to name just one group of inherently sleazy individuals, wouldn't like it either. Of course, the thing has (so we are told) limitations - it can only fly for a maximum of 20 minutes, and can't go to far from its controller. But, somehow, I don't find this incredibly comforting.

Sure, the device reported in the Telegraph and elsewhere, both today and previously, sells for £25,000. But it occurs to me that something offering essentially the same functionality could be built by a half-competent geek tinkering away in his garden shed for an awful lot less than that. In short, it only sells for 25K because that's what the salesman asked for! Oh yes, it has fancy software and comes in a swish-looking case etc. But how much of that is essential to the business of getting off the ground and snapping pics by remote control?

Very, very little, I'd be willing to bet. There are many, many websites out there featuring dedicated, inventive geeks. They showcase projects, all done at home, or in the shed or garage, demonstrating how some propeller head stripped down a domestic appliance and rebuilt it, either better, or differently. And these contraptions work. Sure, they might not have all the finesse of a £25K commercial product - after all, for that kind of money, it's got to at least look good! - but they work well enough to get the job done. And they compete amongst themselves to see who can do the weirdest, coolest things.

One of these Microdrones looks like just the kind of thing they'd want to replicate - and improve on. Any day now, the plans for a cut-price mini-spy will appear on the net. Goodbye privacy.

Billy Seggars.

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