Future Tense

What Can Consumer Drones Actually See?

We tried to spy on some willing participants.

what a drone can see.
Yes, we can see you.


The incidents sound scary to anyone who values privacy: In 2014, a man flew a drone with a camera outside a hospital examination window. He was eventually found not guilty of unlawful surveillance, after he argued he wasn’t trying to spy on anyone. And in 2015, a man shot down a drone he claimed was over his property, spying on his teenage daughter. A Kentucky judge dismissed charges against the shooter, though as of March there was still a federal lawsuit pending.

We’re only going to hear more of these sorts of stories—drones being shot down, their operators accused of spying and/or trespassing—in the coming years. For $1,399, anyone can bring home the DJI Phantom 4, the company’s latest consumer-level release; it’s outfitted with a camera and is capable of flying about 1,600 feet in the air and speeds up to 44 miles per hour, with a maximum range of 3.1 miles. That’s plenty of distance to get lost in the middle of nowhere. But say someone wants to fly level to your second-floor apartment just 10 feet off the ground. Can he or she see the inside?

Well, we tried that, and the answer is yes. I stood outside of Slate Video executive producer Ayana Morali’s apartment in Brooklyn and flew the quadrocopter outside her second-floor window. With the window empty, you can’t see much. The camera’s exposure was set on the apartment’s exterior, so anything inside was too dark to see. But when Ayana sat at the window, I could see everything from her outfit to the expressions she was making as she talked on the phone. Later, back at home, I saw much more detail playing back the video; the Phantom is capable of recording at 4K resolution. See for yourself:

So my experiment suggests that a high-tech peeping Tom could use a drone to spy on someone who happened to be right in front of a window. But what about spying on someone outside? I skated a few blocks south to continue the experiment at a local park.

I flew the quadrocopter in an open field over the heads of a family seated at a park bench. In broad daylight, I can see anything at any angle I chose. Seated on the bench was Caleb, 26, who previously had no idea the flying machine hosted a live camera. “It’s easy to imagine people using it for malicious intent potentially,” he told me. Nikolai, 50, didn’t care as much. “If it was silent I wouldn’t mind it at all. I just find the noise obnoxious.” Below, you can see what I filmed:

Can it be used as a spying tool? Sure. Will you get away with flying it undetected by whomever you’re spying on? No chance. When the rotors on the machine start spinning, it’s as loud as a lawn mower. Even when it’s flying 130 feet above your head, you can hear the quadrocopter buzzing back and forth. In 2014, when consumer-level quadrocopters were relatively new, I flew a DJI Phantom 2 over the doomed-for-demolition New York graffiti landmark 5 Pointz. A photographer, who had snuck in for one last glimpse of the inside before the building was flattened, noticed my camera buzzing over his head. He lobbed a few bricks at it—but lucky for me his aim was crap. After a few bricks landed near my feet, I decided it was time to go.

There’s an argument to be made about not being entitled to your privacy in a public space. But if you are uncomfortable appearing on a stranger’s camera, flying or not, I’m afraid that things will only be getting worse with new technology.

This article is part of the drones installment of Futurography, a series in which Future Tense introduces readers to the technologies that will define tomorrow. Each month from January through June 2016, we’ll choose a new technology and break it down. Read more from Futurography on drones:

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