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Google experimenting with spy drones, says German maker

'Sky View' brewing, or just fresher Google Maps?

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Global small-ads colossus Google is trialling a small battery-powered camera drone of a type previously used by the UK police and special forces, according to reports. It's thought that the flying spyeyes might add a new dimension to the company's controversial "Street View" picture database, compiled by fleets of camera cars driving along roads.

The drone in question is made by German maker Microdrones GmbH, formerly in the news as supplier to the Merseyside police - and, it seems certain, previously to elements of the UK special forces. Microdrones chief exec Sven Juerss told German biz mag Wirtschaft Woche at the weekend that his firm has supplied one drone to Google already and that he has hopes of orders for "dozens" more in future.

"The UAVs are well suited to provide more timely recording of the map service Google Earth," said Juerss, suggesting that his products would supplement the aerial photography and satellite pics used by Google as a display option in its Maps and Earth apps.

Predictably, however, privacy advocates feared that the drones would instead be used to provide an ultra-intrusive variant on the firm's controversial Street View service, which tacks on imagery from camera cars to Google's mapping products (which also, famously, slurp up data on local WiFi nets as they go).

A battery-powered md4-1000 quadcopter can stay up for over an hour, navigating autonomously the while, supplying pictures of a large area as it passes over. Alternatively such a machine can hover in place as an airborne spyeye, though this would forfeit any serious area coverage.

In the UK use of small, lightweight UAVs of this type was formerly unregulated under a provision allowing model and toy aircraft enthusiasts to pursue their pastimes without red tape. However, following the furore over the Merseyside police machine, the UK rules were amended such that any aircraft capable of surveillance - no matter how small - must be registered with the authorities.

The likeliest use of the new Googlecraft would seem to be the production of aerial photography more cheaply than the ads colossus can buy it from the usual suppliers, so furnishing Google with yet more cheap searchable content to drive eyeballs to its adverts. Such imagery doesn't seem likely to be significantly more intrusive than existing offerings.

Nonetheless, the drones' silent operation and previous use by police and secret military units seems sure to trigger a fresh panic among those concerned over privacy - and it's certainly true that Google has form in this area, albeit regarding electronic rather than visual data in recent times. ®

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