One of my favorite drone stories of 2015 was the saga of William “Drone Slayer” Merideth, the Kentucky man who was arrested last year for shooting down an errant camera-equipped drone. Merideth claimed that the drone had strayed over his property; fearful that he and his family were being spied on, he grabbed a nearby gun and blasted the drone out of the sky. Though I can’t condone Merideth’s actions, I also can’t blame him: I, too, would find it creepy and invasive if I looked up at the sky to find a drone that might be camera-equipped hovering above me. But for every person who is moved to gunplay by the notion of aerial surveillance, there is someone else eager to pay $799 for the privilege.
Business Insider reported last week on Lily, a prototype camera-equipped drone that’s an unholy cross between the lamb from “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and the creepy guy from across the street who is always staring at you. Like the aforementioned lamb, Lily is programmed to follow you wherever you go: to school, to work, to Petsmart. Like the neighborhood creeper, Lily will film you as you walk around, and record the footage for posterity. Though Lily won’t be available for purchase until later this year, early signs indicate that the market for silent hovering camera drones is bigger than you might think: Business Insider reports that Lily has already racked up 60,000 preorders, which comes out to $34 million in sales.
Lily isn’t for me. I don’t do anything that’s worth recording on a daily basis; my life is pretty banal, and, honestly, I would rather forget most of it. Maybe your life is different. If so, I guess I can see why you might want to purchase a drone that serves as an autonomous flying cameraman. Maybe you’re an athlete who wants to film your training routine, and you can’t find any friends to man the camera. Maybe you’re a television news reporter and are sick and tired of your real-life cameraman’s bad attitude. Maybe you’re a life-logger of some sort, or just a plain old narcissist. If you fit any of the aforementioned categories, then I can see where Lily might come in handy.
Still, I confess to being mildly horrified by Lily’s early popularity. It’s one thing to elect to have an autonomous camera-equipped drone follow and film you as you’re bopping around the neighborhood. But what happens when other people—who might not want to be filmed—show up in Lily’s sightlines? When you take a camera out of the hands of an actual human operator, you also remove the discretion needed to know when not to film someone or something. Business Insider reports that Lily utilizes “clever machine learning technology,” and I’m sure that’s true, but I doubt that Lily is clever enough to read an expression on an angry bystander’s face and deduce that that bystander is 10 seconds away from reaching for his handgun.
This article is part of a Future Tense series on the future of drones and is part of a larger project, supported by a grant from Omidyar Network and Humanity United, that includes a drone primer from New America.