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U.S. Army drones will have a mechanism to protect your privacy

The privacy concerns over the widening use of drones have apparently not gone unnoticed in the defense sector, where a leading UAV supplier to the U.S. Army is actively working to make field reconnaissance less intrusive for bystanders caught in the stare of the camera. Prioria Robotics disclosed the fruits of its efforts for the first time in a patent filing published last week.

The Florida-based company, whose miniature Maveric drone is also used by the Royal Canadian Air Force, wants to augment the onboard command and control software with a target recognition capability that will be able to filter a video capture for objects that are relevant to the mission. That can include regions, buildings and even specific individuals.

Exactly what the drone registers and in what situation is up to the operator. A rating mechanism enables them to denote different objects and visual features like, say, uniforms, with values representing their importance that the onboard software sums together and compares against a priority threshold. If that threshold is exceeded, the data is passed on to the ground control station.

That can theoretically allow for a great deal of granularity in identifying objects of interest. When a drone is crossing over friendly territory on its way to a mission, for instance, the system would be able to automatically subtract details such as location from the priority score of armed individuals who might otherwise meet the threshold to avoid causing false alarms.

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Data with a lower value is simply discarded without ever leaving the drone, which offers a level of assurance against potential privacy violations. But the reason why Prioria thinks that militaires would be interested in the technology is much more practical: It conserves bandwidth. Although that might seem like a concern reserved for corporate IT departments, it’s very much a key priority in unmanned reconnaissance.

In situations where multiple drones are continuously transmitting surveillance data to an operator located potentially thousands of miles away, that traffic can clog the network to the point where the video feed ends up falling significantly behind the situation on the ground. Passing on only the important details reduces the risk of bottlenecks considerably and helps the person behind the control panel find what they’re looking for a lot more easily.

Not all the credit goes to Prioria, however. The patent filing indicates that the software was developed with help from the U.S. government, which has some rights to the invention as a result. That means that the technology may eventually find use beyond the single-man portable Maveric in much more advanced platforms such as satellites and other space vehicles like the secretive X-37B, which, incidentally, is mentioned by name in the document.

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