Drones with advanced facial recognition capabilities, a common feature in works of science fiction, recently took a big step closer to becoming a reality.

Earlier this month a US patent was filed by an Israeli private surveillance company that would help drones accurately identify people on the ground. The patent details technology to guide a drone in finding the best angles for a facial recognition shot, before trying to find a match for the target by referring to faces stored in a database.

It was titled, ‘Adaptive positioning of drones for enhanced facial recognition,’ and filed by current and former AnyVision employees, including three from Belfast.

In and of themselves, neither drones nor facial recognition technology are new. Drones capable of recording high quality video have been commercially available for years now, and larger devices have been employed by militaries for nearly two decades. Likewise, if you own a modern smartphone the chances are you use facial recognition multiple times per day.

But drones capable of facial recognition have proved significantly challenging. The issue is that facial recognition is only accurate when the camera conducting it benefits from low positioning, clear lighting and an unobstructed view. Even fixed-position cameras that do not benefit from these elements struggle with accuracy, as evidenced by a 2019 study of the London Metropolitan Police’s facial recognition technology which revealed the system to have a shocking 81 per cent real world error rate.

US military agencies have been trying to come up with a solution, but it now seems likely that private industry will get there first. AnyVision’s patent paves the way for the integration of facial recognition solutions in surveillance drones, although it remains to be seen whether law enforcement agencies around the world will deem it appropriate to have these tools.

Benjamin Foux, a London-based information technology lawyer told the Cyprus Mail that the coming years will see a tussle between technological advancements in the security field and people’s right to privacy. “The patent seems to have caused some backlash, but pretty much anywhere you go in public your face is being captured by cameras capable of running face ID software. It’s a matter of time.’

AnyVision’s CEO, Avi Golen told Forbes that whilst AnyVision didn’t have any in-production drones with facial recognition, they would be a reality soon. He added that a wider acceptance of such technologies would be crucial to their deployment. “I think it’s more futuristic technology, but I want to have it in the back of my pocket once it’s more accepted by humanity.”

AnyVision have already had to defend themselves over misuse of similar technology. Microsoft, having purchased a stake in a $74m funding round in 2019, exited their position last year following allegations that AnyVision’s technology had been used at an Israel-West bank border crossing.

While Cyprus police did not respond to a request for comment about whether they would consider using such technology, they have already taken to patrolling the streets from the skies with surveillance drones over the course of the pandemic.

Drone footage can be viewed here.
https://youtu.be/IEFNPK-yKls – Cypriot police drone footage.