Drones cleared to patrol US cities; avatar robots not far behind

We wish we were joking. First this, from UPI, Feb. 18:

US skies to be opened to drones
WASHINGTON — A new federal law allows commercial drones to fly over the United States by late 2015, officials said. The drone language was included in a funding bill for the Federal Aviation Administration signed Tuesday by President Obama...

The bill requires the FAA to allow law enforcement agencies to use drones that weigh no more than 4.4 pounds and fly no higher than 400 feet within 90 days. It requires the agency to adopt rules allowing for the "safe integration" of drones into U.S. airspace by Sept. 30, 2015.

Drones have already been used for a wide variety of commercial purposes. Daniel Garate was making money producing aerial footage of properties for sale for real estate agents until the Los Angeles police warned him off.

Cy Brown of Bunkie, La., developed what he calls a Dehogaflier — a model airplane with a heat-sensing camera he uses to find feral pigs on his brother's rice farm. Drones have also been used to check for leaks in irrigation systems.

The American Civil Liberties Union worries that the bill contains no privacy language and suggests steps must be taken to provide guidelines for "routine aerial surveillance."

The New York Times adds, almost as an afterthought:

Under the new law, within 90 days, the FAA must allow police and first responders to fly drones under 4.4 pounds, as long as they keep them under an altitude of 400 feet and meet other requirements...

And dryly notes (link added):

American courts have generally permitted surveillance of private property from public airspace. But scholars of privacy law expect that the likely proliferation of drones will force Americans to re-examine how much surveillance they are comfortable with.

"As privacy law stands today, you don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy while out in public, nor almost anywhere visible from a public vantage," said Ryan Calo, director of privacy and robotics at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford University. "I don't think this doctrine makes sense, and I think the widespread availability of drones will drive home why to lawmakers, courts and the public."

Now this from Wired, Feb. 16:

Pentagon’s Project 'Avatar': Same as the Movie, but With Robots Instead of Aliens
Soldiers practically inhabiting the mechanical bodies of androids, who will take the humans' place on the battlefield. Or sophisticated tech that spots a powerful laser ray, then stops it from obliterating its target... [Y]ou've probably seen both ideas on the big screen. Now Darpa, the Pentagon's far-out research arm, wants to bring 'em into the real world.

In the agency’s $2.8 billion budget for 2013, unveiled on Monday, they’ve allotted $7 million for a project titled "Avatar." The project's ultimate goal, not surprisingly, sounds a lot like the plot of the same-named (but much more expensive) flick.

According the agency, "the Avatar program will develop interfaces and algorithms to enable a soldier to effectively partner with a semi-autonomous bi-pedal machine and allow it to act as the soldier’s surrogate."

These robots should be smart and agile enough to do the dirty work of war, Darpa notes. That includes the "room clearing, sentry control [and] combat casualty recovery." And all at the bidding of their human partner.

So—count on it—a year or two from now, we will have all gotten used to 24-7 drone surveillance (just like the mindless hordes are now used to their every move being trackable through their apparently indispensable cell phones), and Congress will be in the process of approving avatar robo-cops patrolling our streets. Meanwhile, DARPA will be figuring out how to make the avatars fly, combining the best of both ideas into a sinlge monstrous assault on human freedom.

Oh and by the way, thank you President Obama for signing this legislation. That's really gonna make it easier for wavering progressives to vote for you in November. Way to go.*

*Sarcasm intended

See our last posts on the global drone wars, the surveillance state and the coming rule of the robots.