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Security & privacy

China launches ‘spy bird’ drones to watch population

You ever feel like someone is watching you? That you don’t know who and certainly don’t know where from, but you just have the sense that your movements are being recorded?

If you happen to live in China, that feeling is probably accurate. Only unlike the typical surveillance we think of, like cameras on street corners, the watching is happening from above.

As in, with drones. And not just any drones, mind you, but vehicles that resemble something we often see in the sky and don’t think too much about.

It’s not a bird or a plane, but it’s kind of like a bird

Indeed, China has released into the sky high-tech drones that are designed to look like birds. In fact, the drones — which are designed to move like a bird, flapping wings and all — is able to attract other, actual birds to fly with them.

These drones, and others like them, have been deployed by more than 30 military and government agencies in at least five provinces. The program’s code name is “Dove,” and each drone contains a small camera that will send images back to their controllers.

Why is China doing this? One of the areas that has seen the most drone activity is the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region in the far west. The area borders Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India and is viewed as an area where there is plenty of support for separatism.

At this point the drone program is still being run on a small scale, but assuming it is successful, will likely see it applied for all sorts of different uses in the future.

They are designed to invade privacy

Not surprisingly, the whole point behind bird-like drones is to have something that can record others while not looking like something that records others. Drones that mimic birds are more likely to evade detection, especially if someone is not necessarily looking for one.

Along with cameras, the bird drones have GPS antennas, flight control systems and data link antennas, all of which enable them to be controlled remotely. The team that created them put them through thousands of test flights before they were deployed, at which time they realized a good number of people and animals just saw them as regular birds.

With a wingspan of 50 cm and the ability to fly at speeds of up to 25 mph for a maximum of 30 minutes, it’s understandable why people and animals would not give them a second look. They are not exactly camouflaged, however, as doing that — perhaps even with real feathers on the outside of the drone — could interfere with signals.

Will we see them in the United States?

While this is pretty disturbing, it’s at least comforting to note that it’s in China and not here in the U.S. Or is it?

Back in 2013, the U.S. Army bought nearly three dozen drones that were designed to look like birds of prey. While they did not have moving wings like the ones spotted in the sky above China, the idea behind them is the same.

In that case, the drones were called “Maveric” and while not as advanced as the drones China is using today, they were at the same time intriguing because of how they could fly without anyone on the ground thinking they are anything other than a bird.

Though, while bird-like drones are interesting, the U.S. Air Force is currently trying to figure out if actual birds can be used to help combat drone technology. Scientists from Oxford University, with funding from the Air Force, is studying whether actual birds of prey can be used to intercept drones that enter restricted airspace.

With that in mind, the researchers took 55 falcons and attached video cameras and GPS receivers to them in order to track how they attacked prey that was attached to a drone.

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