Skydio promo videos

Above: Skydio R1 autonomous AI drone. Credit: Skydio.

Theorizing Skydio

The new Skydio R1 autonomous drone is a self-flying video camera. The Skydio is very often demoed as a great way of documenting one's participation in active sports like rafting or mountain biking--it's a bird's-eye-view GoPro. The user sets up the drone and once airborne it will use its thirteen onboard cameras for path planning and obstacle avoidance. The drone's computer is an Nvidia Jetson TX1--the whole set-up parallels the sensors and processing of autonomous self-drive cars. The "killer" functionality of the R1 is its complete autonomy: all it needs in terms of human input is a target for the flying device to lock-on to--a subject to follow.

Making a 4K bird's-eye-view video, shot from high in the sky, looking down on a subject is an ordinary Skydio outcome--as suggested by the developers who promote the product with exemplar videos of mainly sports activities shot thus. However, it was Francois Arago who observed, in 1839, that the actual applications of any new technology rarely turn out to be the ones that were expected or predicted by the innovator: the future is unwritten. The developer-inventor cannot know how (or even if) their innovation will be popularized.

And so it will surely be for the Skydio drone. The developers promote a rather anodyne (SOED: soothing, comforting; bland, inoffensive) use of the gadget, showing it being used to document human leisure pursuits in new and improved (grander) ways, but over time this is unlikely to remain the primary use.

One way of considering any technology at the moment of its inception is to think in terms of the "worst" things that it makes possible as these very often become key to understanding its take-up and popularization. So, in the case of, say, photography, one of the basic initial uses was the creation of pornographic photo-prints. So too, the emergence of the affordable portable video-camera ("portapak") set in motion a revolution in the creation of amateur porn. (In passing, one of the popular and entrenched uses of inexpensive quad-copter drones in the UK is delivering small sacks of illegal drugs to drug dealers residing in prison.)

Applying the same kind of "only the worst" approach to the Skydio, it is patent that the basic target-subject is not going to be one's-self or one's friend, but rather a hostile subject who does not wish to be under surveillance and for whom the Skydio is an unwelcome visitor. In other words the Skydio is very likely to become a popular means by which to spy, snoop, and track another human--suspect; target--for various reasons.

The bird's-eye-views that Skydio offers will not remain glamorous-and-romantic for long, such views will soon become only functional: a suspect, always front-and-centre in the frame, on the move through varied terrain.

Skydio facilitates the tracking of another in a way that is surely revolutionary: the next nearest tech up to this point would be to follow the same suspect in a helicopter or else use a manual remote-control drone. The Skydio improves on both options in that no human operator is at risk during the surveillance activity. And also, the Skydio device is rather anonymous--the target cannot be sure who is streaming him.

It is quite likely that police and security services will resort to Skydio use at some point, so enabling the tracking of, say, an armed crime-gang leader's movements through the City with no overt risk to any operative.

For the ordinary person the introduction of the AI drone is a matter to be discussed under the rubric of privacy: do I have the right not to be followed around by a drone-copter flying ten metres above my head? Does this come under Article 12? (i.e., the Human Right to Privacy).

(15 July 2018)