Emerging technologies tend to be wielded by governments and the military before the general population even know of their existence. In China, the state is using robotic birds to keep a watchful eye on the population.
Although some of the drone industry’s leading manufacturers are based in the country, their products – essentially flying camera platforms – are far from inconspicuous. In fact, you can usually hear a drone from DJI or Yuneec before its unique design flies into view.
So while there’s a degree of familiarity with the underlying technology, citizens will be surprised to learn that, according to the South China Morning Post, “more than 30 military and government agencies have deployed birdlike drones and related devices in at least five provinces in recent years.”
Taking state surveillance to new heights
The technology is thought to have been used extensively in the autonomous region of Xinjiang Uygur. The huge area in the northwest of China shares borders with Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan, among others. It’s also one of the most ethnically diverse parts of the country and thought of by the central government in Beijing as a separatist movement waiting to happen.
The result: state surveillance disguised as nature. The programme is code-named ‘Dove’, and is being led by researchers at the Northwestern Polytechnical University in Xian, Shaanxi province.
“The scale is still small,” a member of the team told the South China Morning Post. “We believe the technology has good potential for large-scale use in the future […] it has some unique advantages to meet the demand for drones in the military and civilian sectors.”
Each dove drone weighs 200 grams and can reach speeds of 25mph for 30 minutes at a time. The drones are connected to a central platform via satellite and are fitted with high-definition cameras and software to stabilise the video footage.
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Aside from the obvious privacy concerns, it’s the potential military applications of this technology that may have other nations scrambling for counter-measures. After all, any aerial system that looks, behaves, and flies like a bird could evade both human and radar detection.
The move to develop and recruit drones for reconnaissance purposes is part of a wider trend. Militaries around the world are keen to harness progress in computer vision and autonomous systems.
Meanwhile, the ability to gather intelligence without risking the safety of human soldiers is a positive step – no matter which side of a war you’re on. It’s when that technology is turned on civilians that the ethical lines begin to blur.