I met a police drone in VR—and hated it

I met a police drone in VR—and hated it thumbnail

A small drone descends from space and hovers right in front of me. The drone’s speakers emit a voice. Routine police checks are being conducted in the area.

I feel like the drone’s camera has been drilling into my body. I try to turn my face away from it, but it follows me like a heat-seeking rocket. It asks me to put my hands up and scans my body and face. It completes the scan and leaves me alone, stating that there is an emergency elsewhere.

I got lucky–my encounter was with a drone in virtual reality as part of an experiment by a team from University College London and the London School of Economics. They are studying how people react to meeting police drones and whether they feel more or less trusting of them.

It seems that encounters with police drones may not be pleasant. Police departments are adopting these types of technologies without ever trying to find out.

” No one is asking the question: “Is this technology going do more harm than good?” Aziz Huq is a law professor at UCL DEPT OF SECURITY AND CRIME SCIENCE

Screenshot from VR experiment


Screenshot from VR experiment


The researchers are interested in finding out if the public is willing to accept this new technology, explains Krisztian Posch, a lecturer in crime science at UCL. A rude, aggressive drone is not something people can accept. Researchers want to find out if drones are acceptable in any situation. They are interested in knowing if an automated drone is more acceptable than a human-operated drone.

If the reaction is negative, the big question is if these drones are actually effective tools for police work, Posch states. The drone manufacturers have an incentive to claim that the drones are effective and are helping. However, no one has evaluated it so it is difficult to know if they are right.” he said.

It’s important because police departments are racing way ahead and starting to use drones anyway, for everything from surveillance and intelligence gathering to chasing criminals.

Last week, San Francisco approved the use of robots, including drones that can kill people in certain emergencies, such as when dealing with a mass shooter. Posch says that most UK police drones are equipped with thermal cameras that can detect who is in a house. This has been used for all sorts of things: catching human traffickers or rogue landlords, and even targeting people holding suspected parties during covid-19 lockdowns.

Virtual reality will let the researchers test the technology in a controlled, safe way among lots of test subjects, Posch says.

I found the encounter with the drone frightening, even though I knew that I was in VR. Even though I had met a polite, human-operated drone, my opinion of them did not change. (There are more aggressive modes for the experiment which I did not experience.

In the end, it doesn’t matter if drones are “polite” or “rude”, says Christian Enemark, an expert in drone ethics at the University of Southampton. He is not involved with the research. He says that drones are a reminder that police are not present, regardless of whether they don’t bother to be there or not.

“So maybe there’s something fundamentally disrespectful about any encounter.”

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