Military photo

There’s no question that the future of warfare, espionage, and clandestine operations is moving rapidly toward reliance on drone aircraft. But should citizens grow restless when this technology moves into the private sector? A German drone maker claims Google is trialing one of its drones, a battery-powered surveillance quadcopter previously used by UK police and special forces. What the search giant and alleged Wi-Fi data collector plans to do with the drone is unclear, but it seems likely that this isn’t going to sit well with privacy advocates.

The drone, made by Microdrones GmbH, can stay in the air for more than an hour, photographing large swaths of territory autonomously as it goes. It can also hover, providing aerial surveillance over a single target area for just as long.

Google’s interest in such a drone is most likely its ability to supplement its Google Earth service, which currently relies on aerial and satellite photos to overlay Google Maps with actual bird’s eye images of the earth. But Google is in hot water — particularly in Europe — for its collection of personal Wi-Fi data by its army of Street View cars that drive around collecting all those street images provided by that service. Street View itself has been called an invasion of privacy because it photographs people without their knowledge or consent.

It’s tough to make a case that shooting photos on a public street is an invasion of privacy, but adding an aerial surveillance drone to the mix could stir the ire of privacy advocates and could raise legal issues in some countries as well. Assuming Google is only toying with the idea of raising a drone air force to provide cheap and up-to-date aerial images for Google Earth, this doesn’t seem like such a big deal.

But given the fact that Google has a history of prompting privacy complaints and that the drone it acquired was designed with a military/surveillance nature, it will be interesting to see what shakes out of this wrinkle in the Google story. UK aircraft regulations have already been amended to reflect the new and growing role of surveillance drones in society and the FAA is currently considering how the U.S. might integrate commercial drones into American skies. Somewhere out there privacy rights, aviation law, and commercial interests are going to collide, and should Google roll out a fleet of camera-laden drone aircraft, the ensuing reactions of citizens and state could mark the preliminary steps in defining which direction our drone culture is heading.