As advances in technology have taken exponential leaps and bounds in recent years, there has been far too little to protect Americans from the potential for overreach in this realm.
Take, for instance, the way in which cameras have changed in both size and image quality over the last three decades. Where he once had to carry around VHS cameras and literal tape to capture video footage, we now have handheld telephones recording at a higher resolution than the studio who made Jurassic Park.
But this also means that cameras can be just about anywhere, invading our right to privacy, and our 4th Amendment guarantee against unlawful search and seizure.
To make matters worse, we are now seeing a number of highly powerful drones, armed with high-resolution cameras, being employed in law enforcement…some of which are now even coming equipped with artificial intelligence.
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. It’s not clear just how fast its drones are selling. Dun & Bradstreet estimates its 2020 revenues were firmly sub-$5 million, a figure Skydio says is “significantly off-base.” What is clear is while the company isn’t pre-revenue, it’s still early days in terms of sales. The Army and Air Force spent $10 million on its drones in the last two years, but much of that revenue came in 2019. 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.
Here’s where it gets spooky:
The company was founded in 2014 by ex-MIT and Google unmanned flight specialists with ambitions that go far beyond policing the borders. Gawky, dark-haired and stubble-cheeked, with the manner of a Star Trek ensign, 34-year-old Skydio cofounder and CEO Adam Bry believes his company will lead the world to a place where drones don’t need a pilot, whether they’re helping police, inspecting bridges or delivering goods. “We‘re solving a lot of the core problems that are needed to make drones trustworthy and able to fly themselves,” he says from his home, two blocks from Skydio headquarters just outside of San Francisco. “Autonomy—that core capability of giving a drone the skills of an expert pilot built in, in the software and the hardware—that’s really what we’re all about as a company.”
It 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.
Privacy advocates are likely to have some serious gripes with the employment of this technology, particularly in law enforcement applications where evidence is gathered by a thinking machine and not an eyewitness.
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