Pie in the Sky: UC Berkeley Works on Drones That Won't Spy on and/or Kill You

Coye Cheshire doesn't mean to be impolitic, but he can't help mentioning the FBI's search for the Boston Marathon bombers — and how it could be abetted by technology.

“The whole push is to find someone who had pictures, and who could provide high resolution information about public events,” says Cheshire, an associate professor at the UC Berkeley School of Information.

He's pretty certain he has a solution to this problem, and you're probably not going to like it: Drones. The small, unmanned, all-seeing aircraft are mostly considered in a military context, and thus used for nefarious reasons, Cheshire says. But set aside your paranoia — drones can actually be used for social good.

At the UC Berkeley School of Information, a group of graduate students recently coalesced around the idea of building their own drones for a variety of reasons — all good. They could be programmed to take photographs at sports events, or interred at archeological dig sites to gather data about the environment, Cheshire says. They could be deputized to take “Google Street View”-style pictures of untrodden places, like ground-mapping Mount Diablo for hikers.

Of course, they could also be used to solve crimes and spy on ordinary citizens — a prospect that's rattled some. When the Oakland Police Department proposed drones as a cheaper alternative to surveillance helicopters, local activists freaked out. Law enforcement agencies across the country had already embraced the notion of employing drones for police work, comparing the new aerial hardware to other motion-sensor technology that's already become part of everyday life, such as traffic light cameras. UC faculty members understand the controversy, but they also believe the benefits of these flying robots might convince naysayers.

So far, the school's inaugural drone lab, where Cheshire serves as faculty sponsor, has attracted a variety of academics, from hardware engineers to social scientists to legal students who are more interested in the “Big Brother” debate. Their equipment is slightly crude — just a large, noisy arsenal of AR drones that cost a couple hundred bucks on Amazon — and their ideas are a little inchoate. But Cheshire hopes the group will create useful technology, and maybe even a smaller device that could fold up in your backpack.

“The future down the road is this little thing you throw up in the air, and it does some routine you've programmed it to do,” he says. His students are fairly sure that once drones have a more productive household purpose, they'll get a better name.

“You strap a bomb to it, and that's what it's for — that's unfortunate,” Cheshire says. “But think of what other cool stuff you can do with something you program and put in the sky.”

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