I wrote about the SUAVe, an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that's being developed as a collaboration between Vanderbilt archaeologist Steven Wernke and engineering professor Julie Adams. You can read more about it here, but in short, it's a small unmanned aircraft that they're testing in the Andes to create detailed digital maps of archaeological ruins.
When I asked if we'd be able to see it in flight, Adams told me, "Right now, no one can fly this little vehicle legally." That is, unless one is on a military base or one of six approved unmanned aerial testing sites in the country. As you may be aware, MTSU is working to become an approved site.
"People are already upset with the Google vans taking photos," Adams told me. "UAVs can fly above your house, and that does start to get into issues of privacy."
You may have already started extrapolating. Vanderbilt researchers are now working on a UAV the size of a pizza box that could be launched by hand from pretty much anywhere, fly around, take digital images — correlated to exact location via GPS data — and create a digital map with detail up to 5 centimeters per pixel. So it's not unreasonable to believe that, no matter the researchers' intentions at the moment, this sort of technological package could eventually become available to people who are not archaeologists studying Spanish colonial settlements in Peru — say, private defense contractors, police and other entities that are less excited about post-colonial Andean culture and more excited about knowing exactly what you or I might be doing at any given time, because war on terror.
Adams seemed genuinely sensitive to privacy concerns, but she also expressed concern about "how to allow UAV technology to advance in this country."
"I and many others worry that Washington is going to tie the hands of researchers like myself and the startups," she said. "The Europeans are moving fast in this area. ... Asia will also take off in due time."
Considering that we already live in a world where a squadron of miniature quadrotor helicopters can be programmed to play the James Bond theme, it isn't hard to imagine a world in which Google Earth looks decidedly old-school, lo-res and not-at-all-creepily-intrusive compared to the next generation of automated surveillance.
"What we're focusing on," she added, "that's not our intention."