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Amazon nets patent for mini police drones

Photo: U.S. Patent And Trademark Office
Photo: U.S. Patent And Trademark Office
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Forget police body cameras, Amazon was just granted a patent for miniature police shoulder drones.

Amazon Technologies, Inc. was granted a patent Oct. 18 for a device it called an “unmanned aerial vehicle assistant,” aimed at use by police for everything from monitoring situations to finding lost children at the fair.

The miniature drone, shown in patent filing drawings perched on a police officer’s shoulder above their clip-on radio microphone (and only just as wide as the mic), would be voice activated and could detect “distress” commands, among other things, essentially providing a second set of ears and eyes not just for the officer on the ground, but for a central system monitoring data coming from the drone.

“Many situations arise in which a user may wish to review the situation from afar,” the company wrote in the patent filing. "It would be especially convenient if the (drone) were small enough to be carried on a person.”

Depending on how the drone were outfitted, it could be to find vehicles in a large parking lot, run license plates, monitor a dangerous situation, gather remote video and audio, detect fires using a thermal imaging camera, or even identify people using facial recognition software, among other tasks, according to the filings.

What makes the tiny size of the drone possible is that its processor may not be installed on the drone itself, but remotely mounted, potentially on its shoulder docking station.

Beyond voice control from an officer or other user, these little drones could take cues from an app or computer, allowing for far off monitoring or information gathering rather discreetly in some situations.

The devices, if put into wide use, would no doubt raise new questions about police use of technology, said Shankar Narayan, technology and liberty project director for the America Civil Liberties Union in Seattle. Because the drones would be so small, they might be able to operate in discreet ways, collecting information without the subjects ever being aware, he noted.

In a traffic stop, for example, such a drone could fly around the vehicle conducting a search of the inside of the car without an officer ever establishing the required probable cause for such a search, Narayan said.

"That's just one of the ways you could try to make an end-run around the constitutional protections," he said.

Civil rights advocates would look to regulate such devices before they ever went into use.

"We want to make sure the use of this technology doesn't turn into an open fishing expedition" just because newer technology allows it, Narayan said.

In addition, information collected by the drones would no doubt fall under public disclosure requirements, but much like footage from body cameras, debates would soon swell around what to release and when.

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Amazon did not respond to a request for comment.

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