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Steve Thomas Commentary: Rapidly Advancing Robotics Technology Leaves Privacy Law Behind

In his latest Texas Lawyer commentary, MCS Shareholder Steve Thomas describes a global state-sponsored and private sector race to not only make drones smaller but also to fashion these devices in ways that mimic critters in the animal kingdom. Think lifelike robot birds that flap wings and glide, as well as butterflies and dragonflies, aquatic life and even spiders.

Advancements over the last two decades include a “Micromechanical Flying Insect” project launched by the Department of Defense project in 1998 to use tiny covert robots as “flies on the wall” in military operations. Meanwhile, the British Army’s Black Hornet Nano UAV is a 4-inch-long, half-ounce helicopter equipped with three cameras and night vision technology that give the operator full-motion video and still images. In 2010, images surfaced of a U.S. Air Force “pigeon drone” designed to flap its wings just like a real world bird, while the Spanish-made Shepherd Mil claims to be indistinguishable from a real bird from 100 meters.

Writes Thomas:

Whether by size or appearance, these efforts reflect a new chapter in an age-old reliance on nature’s remarkably efficient designs … But the recent efforts at creating robotic spies tap nature not for its efficiency so much as for its ubiquitous presence, which causes people to take it for granted. A small plane or quadcopter draws attention, but people ignore bugs and birds…

dragonfly“Robobirds can give a bird’s-eye view – and stream video. Bugbots can slip through cracks and crevices and hide in house plants and dark corners, listening and photographing all that goes on ‘Behind closed doors,’ a phrase historically used as a synonym for private interactions. As technology more accurately replicates the appearance and dexterity of nature, the more easily it can be used to hide in plain sight while capturing information.

These biomimetic robots provide examples of how far science has progressed in copying nature. Adding cameras, microphones and digital data links for streaming are natural next steps…

Privacy is a matter of degree. City life erodes it to an extent. Growing up with siblings, even more. For so long as there are those who want to peer behind the veil of privacy – sometimes for good reasons, sometimes not – technology holds the promise of secret invasion. The more the world fills with robotic flies on the wall, the more that promise can be fulfilled.”

Read the full article here (subscription required).