How Privacy Concerns Will Shape LiDAR Applications Using UAS

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LiDAR has proven to be an effective tool for aerial, terrestrial, and mobile applications. It is conceivable that many current aerial and terrestrial LiDAR applications will be performed by UAS (Unmanned Aerial Systems) in the not-to-distant future.

How will UAS ("drones") change the profession? Today, there are at least two LiDAR sensors on the market that can be used on a UAS: Riegl VUX-1, Velodyne HDL-32E. But there is a growing national concern about the "erosion of privacy" caused by UAS. Most geospatial professionals have not faced a technology that causes such angst with the public. The American mind (and much of the world) has a kind of multiple personality complex about drones. Drones conjure up conflicting images of bad and good: murderous, flying war machines to life-saving technological wonders.

The core concerns about how UAS may erode and invade our privacy are legitimate. Geospatial professionals must understand these concerns, why they exist, and how our application of UAS can affect privacy. There are well over 40 states that have already enacted or are discussing legislation to limit drone activity. This legislative activity has grown from the deep concern that citizens have about privacy. People are concerned that drones may be a real threat to privacy and a threat to their freedom.

The genesis of these concerns can be traced to drone’s first and, to date, their most common use for surveillance and killing in war. Americans are generally O.K. with drones surveilling and killing enemies in war. But using the same stealthy technology to surveil innocent Americans without a warrant sends chills down one’s spine.

Our sense of privacy is further inflamed by other government activities arising from the headlines. The Federal government’s "militarism" within our borders is growing and perceived as excessive. Police departments are equipping themselves with SWAT teams and armor-plated military muscle-machines like MRAPs. In Washington, Iowa, and at least six other small Iowa communities, police have purchased this type of equipment. Militarism of our security forces threatens many Americans’ sense of security and privacy.

Second, recent NAS admissions that our personal communications are tapped has also incited our sense of privacy. There is also a growing realization that our activity is being recorded via our cell phone GPS, cameras on street corners and inside stores, and by Google "reading" all our email. We are now even beginning to see merchants track our location within stores and send us coupons for tighty-whiteys while peering at the underwear rack!

A third reason for concern is that UAS technology is so amazingly capable. GPS, miniaturization, communication technology, and autonomous flight have conspired to enable drones to do amazing work. It’s exactly because this technology is so capable and amazing that it is concerning. It is capable … to kill, to surveil, to sense the earth remotely, to map, to survey, to haul stuff and to do a thousand other important works. It’s so capable!

Drones, and the technology soup from which they arise, promise to be both wonderfully good and terribly threatening. Therefore, we need to wisely handle this technology to our benefit, not to our demise. American’s concern about drones’ impact on privacy is important. Proponents of this technology, like many of us geospatial professionals, must not ignore these concerns.

America is the greatest economic engine the world has ever known. It is a light on a hill for liberty because of our constitutional protections for "inalienable" rights. We are free to go and to choose! The fourth amendment codifies this basic right to privacy. Without robust protections for privacy Americans cannot be free. If we lose our freedom because of an ever-growing and intrusive government using amazing, capable technology, then our economic engine chokes and our light dims. The future growth and societal benefit of this industry depends on a robust competitive market that rewards innovation and excellence. These cannot develop without intact foundations of freedom and privacy. These undergird our society and our economy. Without these foundational supports, none of this whiz-bang matters. Therefore, it’s important that privacy and freedom are protected. [That said, it’s easy to see an opposite and equally unwise reaction to over-regulate and stifle the application of this technology because of all the possible and imagined threats to privacy, even before they arise.]

It’s important to realize that the impact on privacy of UAS depends on their application. Drones will likely be used for three general purposes. Each will have different impacts on privacy & freedom. Our laws and conversations in the public arena about drones and privacy need to differentiate between these UAS applications:
Remote Sensing, Mapping, & Surveying
Hauling of goods/services

People’s sense of privacy is most threatened by surveillance drones. "Because of their potential for pervasive use in ordinary law enforcement operations, and their capacity for revealing far more than the naked eye, drones pose a more serious threat to privacy than do manned flights."1 We don’t want our government using these amazing new tools to loiter over our heads undetected for long periods of time and record our actions and our speech. Or at least, if they are used, then we want a warrant and data retention policies, and other protections to ensure the data is only used to capture the bad guy.

Americans generally don’t have an expectation of privacy when out in public. Cameras on street corners and in Wal-Mart parking lots record continuously. We’re O.K. with that. However, when a single government agency can secretly record everyone’s movement on a single drone over a given geographic area for any length of time, Americans will feel differently.

The second general applications for drones are remote sensing, mapping, and surveying. These applications are generally not perceived as threats to liberty and privacy. After all, we have had cameras in the sky photographing everything for the last 100 years. Remote sensing professionals photograph our cities every year or two. Surveying pipelines, road corridors, cities, forests and rivers are important applications for aerial remote sensing. These applications bring tremendous benefits to our firms and society. Inspecting inaccessible bridge abutments, hot nuclear reactors, and unstable buildings will become routine jobs for drones.

It is conceivable that most aerial and terrestrial LiDAR will be performed by UAS in the not-to-distant future because of their ease of use and autonomous operation. These types of wonderful applications are generally not a threat to privacy because the earth and structures on it are described, not people and the activity of people.

That said the general public seems to conflate privacy concerns with any drone application. For example, remote sensing drones were not allowed to assist rescuers in the Washington mudslides. Some victims’ families and others were concerned about privacy. Later, virtually identical imagery was collected by manned systems with little concern. This is the kind of discontinuity that stymies the legitimate applications of drones.

Geospatial professionals need to help and advocate for exemptions in public policy so remote sensing, mapping, and surveying is allowed and not thrown under the same prohibitive umbrella as surveillance drones. We also need to establish "best practices" so when we fly we are careful to safeguard privacy. This becomes even more important as our sensors improve and our ability to identify people in great detail becomes possible.

The third big application of UAS will be for "hauling" stuff. Eventually FedEx and UPS will shuttle packages around the globe. Maybe even pizza will be delivered across town. Facebook and Google plan to use drones to extend communications to unreached parts of the globe. But groups will also use drones to carry life-saving drugs and food to people in roadless areas or to areas decimated by hurricanes or tornados. Large numbers of people will benefit. Again, these type of applications most often do not impinge on privacy. It would be unwise to limit all drone use for applications like these when little or no threat to privacy is posed, or when "best practices" are used to mitigate those threats.

UAS will transform remote sensing and mapping from an aerospace market of expensive, specialized technology to an information and technology market. Drones will bring remote sensing to everyone. A great deal of remote sensing will no longer be about planes, pilots, and air traffic control. It will be about information technology and meaningful deliverables. Drones will make remote sensing easy. Citizens and professionals from many walks of life will be conducting their own remote sensing.

The average citizen has never had such ready access to the national airspace, capable sensors and autonomous flight. These realities will have profound implications for the geospatial community. A high level of expertise will be needed to provide relevant information from remote sensing data. Information, not data, will be the new value center. But the collection of the data may soon be as easy as vacuuming your living room.

1 ACLU of Maryland, Advisory for March 19, 2013,

Mike Tully is the President of Aerial Services, Inc. located in the heartland of Iowa. He is a photogrammetrist, GIS-P, techno-geek, and the head of "Getting Things Done Well" at Aerial Services.

A 2.322Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine complete with images is available by clicking HERE