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Thursday, November 08, 2007


If we were in charge of administering black budgets and ultra-secret projects, the current state of the world would offer enormous comfort. Rumour and speculation are rife in the 30 billion dollar world of covert technology, the likes and capacity of which we can only begin to imagine. But our imagination is the problem. Click past the respectable windows into the dark world of covertly funded projects, like the insight offered by the Federation of American Scientists, for example, and it's easy to lose track of what's real, what's imagined, what's proposed, projected or merely the paranoid ramblings of people who believe they're being kept in the dark. The whole black helicopter phenomenon is little more than a manifestation of collective uncertainty, a useful, if nebulous, thing to point the trembling finger at.

So when stories titled 'Are We Being Watched by Flying Robot Insects? enter the public realm (even in the Washington Post), they are received with a tone of scepticism, tinged with a bit of gee-whiz speculation (via Never mind the Black Helicopters, look out for the Dragonflies, where the mood is appalled, unsurprised and generally disdainful). Sure, the technology and the theory exists, but it's the applications that unsettle. A recent issue of Professional Engineering (Vol:20 Issue:16, subscription required) carried the story 'Spy copter debut passes over heads of festival-goers', quietly noting how police trialled the Hicam Microdrone at the V Festival, after earlier trials ('Police force tests airborne spy camera', (Guardian, Tuesday May 22, 2007). It was widely reported at the time, and the coverage has veered from admiring to alarmist. This Wired Gallery neatly summarises the current state and scale of (visible) technology, which ranges from military vehicles down to small(ish) companies like Schiebel and their Camcopter (and their rather elegant factory).

Miniature UAV's (or just MAVs) are high on the agenda at DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), as well as places like the University of Florida. It's not hard to imagine why such a thing might be needed, or why governments around the world are champing at the bit to get hold of MAVs, but by the same token one should assume that even if the quasi-legendary robot dragonflies don't exist, then something incredibly similar already exists. The Economist has run a couple of stories - 'Rise of the Machines' and 'The Fly's a Spy' - that posit believable near-future scenarios. 'The bigger worries are to do with privacy: some of these flying machines will be so small that they will be able to fly inside buildings, filming everything they see; heaven knows what paparazzi will do with them.'

Imagine a swarm of quasi-autonomous paparazzibots, programmed to relentlessly home in on Paris Hilton's iPhone or electronically paired with the Bluetooth transmitter in Prince Harry's Range Rover. Tomorrow's celebrities will be permanently accompanied by an unwelcome micro-cloud of buzzing devices, miniature versions of the news choppers that blight the LA skies, mimicking the fly-strewn perimeter of Pigpen from Peanuts. So disposable that they're released in their hundreds, all busy feeding streams of high resolution imagery back to their masters. If cell phones had to have an artificial shutter sound piped in to their cameras to sate privacy concerns, what noise will be regulated on the flying camera fleet?

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