Do you ever feel like someone is watching you? A shadow over your shoulder, the sound of a footstep that's not yours, a camera craning down from the corner of a building, silhouettes smoking cigarettes down an alleyway — these are the things you should be least worried about. Because, you see, the future is growing more dystopian by the minute. Spies come from the skies and the insides of wires. And their tools are getting scary sophisticated.
Drones are obviously central to the latest wave of surveillance technology. You've probably heard all about the recent rash of unmanned aerial vehicles shooting missiles at unsuspecting farmers, some of whom are terrorists, in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan. More recently, Motherboard's own Brian Anderson told us all about the emerging commercial drone industry and the unsettling reality that these robotic snoopers could be coming to a sky near you. They've proven to be great for peeking behind the walls of Hollywood compounds and catching a bird's eye view of protests. But the unsuspecting targets of these can always run inside or, if they're feeling violent, just shoot the damn things down.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) took it to a new level this week, though, with the introduction of "the most advanced surveillance system in the sky." Codenamed ARGUS — Autonomous Real-Time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance Imaging System — the new camera system comes equipped with 1.8 gigapixels worth of sensors. It's made up of an array of 368 sensors not unlike the one in your smartphone, each capable of 5-megapixel resolution. (Adding them all up gives us that 1.8 gigapixel number.) It doesn't miss a thing either since it's capable of streaming a million terabytes, or 5,000 hours, of HD video every day.
Those are some insane specifications. At that resolution, ARGUS can spot a six-inch object from 10 miles away while flying at an altitude of 20,000 feet. The imaging system is so powerful it can see what you're wearing from the nearly same altitude as commercial airlines fly, while your puny eyeballs can barely spot small cities from that high. One thing it cannot do, that we're aware of, is see around corners, through walls and inside houses. These wouldn't be tough features to add, though, as even some of the simplest surveillance drones come equipped with heat sensors, infrared cameras, sophisticated radar systems, motion sensors and license plate readers. These are some of the tools that helped us spot the people living inside the Osama bin Laden compound.
The only thing missing from these Orwellian spy machines in the sky is facial recognition capabilities. But don't worry! It's inevitable. Other drone technologies already use some facial recognition technology, and it's only a matter of improving those systems so that they work at high-altitude.
Are you wearing your tin foil hat yet? Maybe try this drone-proof burqa instead.
Image via DARPA / PopSci