Skydio has been making headlines lately for being the first U.S.-based drone manufacturer to be valued at more than $1 billion in fundraising. The company has found a willing customer base in police forces across the United States, too, according to a report from Forbes. Nothing to be concerned about, surely, just flying artificial intelligence controlled by a group known for its abuses of power.
At least 20 police agencies across the country own drones from Skydio, based on information Forbes obtained through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and Skydio’s own public announcements. Those agencies include major cities like Boston and Austin, according to the report. The Custom and Border Protection office is also trialing Skydio drones this year.
Skydio’s market boost has been helped by a giveaway program the company began last year. More than 30 public agencies, including some of the aforementioned police forces, took free drones from Skydio last year. As with all boundary-pushing technology, AI-powered drones come with a high risk of being misused. Skydio CEO Adam Bry says he’s strongly against weaponizing Skydio’s drones — but we’re pretty sure the cops aren’t so dead-set against it.
Skydio is rising high — 2020 was very, very good for Skydio, a company that’s struggled to take on the drone market since its founding in 2014. Most recently, the company has found success in marketing its drones as self-flying solutions: they use artificial intelligence to remove a pilot from the equation.
“Autonomy — that core capability of giving a drone the skills of an expert pilot built in, in the software and the hardware — that’s really what we’re all about as a company,” Bry tells Forbes. Skydio claims its drone AI is the most powerful ever conceived, with the ability to dodge obstacles while recording HD video.
The sales of Skydio’s impressive self-piloting tech have been bolstered by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s ban on DJI drones for the company’s connections to the Chinese government. DJI’s estimated market share was more than 70 percent before the ban.
Cops and tech, a dangerous mix — This is a story we’ve seen so many times now that its conclusion is almost anticlimactic. Police get their hands on innovative technology; police use that technology as an extension of their existing operations; police end up with more power, often to the detriment of everyone else.
Just a couple of examples, for illustration’s sake. Create a robotic dog and the police will use it with reckless abandon. Develop facial recognition software and the cops will use it for invasive surveillance. Give law enforcement data-mining algorithms and they’ll use them to kill people. There is a pattern here.
Skydio’s CEO is not ignorant of this danger. “We understand that our drones are going to be used in potentially polarizing and charged situations,” he tells Forbes. “But I think that steering away from that just because it’s controversial would be the wrong thing to do.”
Of course, Skydio can't control what police do once they've purchased the drones. Bry might be opposed to drone-powered abuse, but that's out of his hands, now.