Standalone drones for emergencies

Orwellian surveillance or a safe and effective tool for police to respond quickly to unexpected situations? Thanks to a report in The New York Times, we can find out what it’s like when police drones fly to the scene of crimes without human help.

For his recent report, Cade Metz visited the police station in Chula Vista, a city near the California-Mexico border. The settlement, with a population of 270,000, has been experimenting for two years with certain drones not being the first to be deployed by police, but drones capable of flying independently. More than four thousand such missions have already been carried out, but while the authorities are satisfied, human rights defenders are concerned. In the article, we read of a case where police were alerted to a man sleeping in a stolen car among drug paraphernalia – and a drone launched from the top of the captaincy was first sent to the scene. The device watched as the man, with a gun and a bag of heroin in his hand, first began to hide and then tried to get rid of the evidence. The video was followed by a police officer sitting at headquarters, who kept his colleagues informed of what had happened. The man was eventually captured, the gun and the drug found.

In October, a video showing action by the Atlanta police was released in several places: a drone flies into an apartment where a man suspected of murder is staying. Using the device’s camera and speaker, the police were able to intercept someone from a distance who had probably been attacked by a team of commandos anyway. Then, especially in light of the protests against police violence, many were delighted that perhaps in this way fewer police and civilian lives would be endangered by similar actions. On the Chula Vista devices, on the other hand, there are those who raise their eyebrows: are we sure we want to scatter our cities with tiny planes that move everything without human control? The Times article talks about machines that can handle terrain that is particularly difficult to navigate using technologies used in self-driving cars, and there is even a drone that can traverse buildings completely alone in both dark and light. A manufacturer called Skydio has long been selling devices that track their owners – now police can get similar ones to track down criminals, or suspected criminals. The Amazon housekeeping drone, compared to these, looks almost like a toy.

In Chula Vista, autonomous drones are not used for either demonstrations or routine patrols, and video facial recognition systems have already been banned in several places in the country, so perhaps police officers are not abusing the technology. However, in less democratic countries, the combination of these solutions can already lead to particularly worrying situations.

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