Yesterday, Ring, the smart home company owned by Amazon, announced the Always Home Cam, a “next-level indoor security” system in the form of a small autonomous drone. It costs US $250 and is designed to closely integrate with the rest of Ring’s home security hardware and software. Technologically, it’s impressive. But you almost certainly don’t want one.
I honestly don’t know why that fake burglar is any more worried about the Ring drone than he would be about a regular security camera. It’s not like the drone can do anything, and he could just knock it out of the air. But, it’s a product launch video, so, who knows?
Ring hasn’t revealed a lot of details on the drone itself, but here’s what we can puzzle out. My guess is that there’s a planar lidar right at the top that the drone uses to localize, and that it probably has a downward-looking camera as well. Ring says that you pre-map the areas that you want the drone to fly in, which works because the environment mostly doesn’t change. It’s also nice that you don’t have to worry about weather, and minimal battery life isn’t a big deal since you don’t need to fly for very long and the recharging dock is always close by. I like that the user can only direct the drone to specific waypoints rather than piloting it directly, which (depending on how well the drone actually performs) should help minimize crashes. Ring also says that “designed with privacy in mind, the motors even hum when in flight” which is a ridiculous statement to make because it’s a drone, of course the motors hum when in flight.
So is this a realistic product? Sure, I don’t see why it wouldn’t be. It seems like it could do what it says it does under some amount of as yet to be revealed constraints. But is it a good idea, and should you buy one? Personally, I wouldn’t recommend it. My skepticism comes from a few different places. First, an important question to ask about any consumer robot that purports to be useful is whether the robot is, really, just a flashy and cool way of doing something that could be done more easily, more reliably, and more cheaply with a more conventional system. In this case, we can compare the drone to a network of indoor security cameras.
Today you can get a totally decent indoor security camera for as little as $25, and the cameras are usually trivial to set up and keep running. So you could get 10 of them for the cost of the Ring drone. Cameras are static (although you can pay a bit more for pan/tilt options), meaning that the drone can visually survey a lot more of your house than the cameras can. But the real question is, can a few cameras cover the parts of your house that you actually care about? For example, in my (admittedly small) apartment, one static camera covers most of the living room, the front door, and the stairs up to my office. My one camera can’t monitor the kitchen or bedroom or office the way a Ring’s drone could, but if I really felt the need to monitor those things, I could buy three more cameras and still have $150 left rather than going with the drone. That would still leave some odd corners and stuff that the drone could get to, but I can’t imagine ever needing to urgently look at those corners remotely.
For larger houses, scaling is going to be different, and you may get to the point where you would actually break even on all the cameras you’d need. However, I’d argue that for security purposes (which is what this drone seems to be all about), it’s not nearly as useful as a static camera is. Static cameras offer continuous monitoring, while the best the drone can do is reactive monitoring, as shown in the video. If a static camera detects a movement, it can ping you instantly and send you footage of the event itself as well as some amount of time both before and after. The drone is not nearly as effective, since it has to launch, travel, recharge, and can only be in one place at a time.
A second important question to ask about any robot, especially one with a camera on it, is whether the benefits of such a system outweigh the risks. And before we get into why having an autonomous internet-connected flying security camera could be a privacy nightmare, we should also point out a potentially significant privacy upside to the Ring drone over a more conventional static camera setup. I think it’s reasonable to point out (as Ring has) that with the drone, you always know when it’s recording and where it’s recording from, because it’ll be loudly airborne and making a nuisance of itself. This is not the case with most static security cameras, which are typically on all the time, and it’s hard to have perfect confidence that what those cameras are seeing is staying as private as it should. If the drone isn’t in the air and being noisy, I can’t see how it could be used to spy on you without you realizing it. And if you don’t want a permanent camera in (say) your bedroom but would like the option of monitoring it while you’re away, a mobile system like the Ring drone offers that capability, as long as you remember to leave your bedroom door open when you leave.
But this potential privacy feature also comes with privacy risks, says Ryan Calo, associate professor at the University of Washington School of Law, in Seattle. “Fixed cameras can be avoided, whereas mobile ones can’t, which can make it impossible for a child, spouse, or roommate to get away from the camera,” he explains. This is not unique to Ring’s drone, but for better or worse, Ring is among the first to offer a dedicated mobile surveillance robot. “If mobile surveillance is normalized,” he adds, “my concern is that it will permit an abuser to check in on their partner wherever they are, erase surveillance blind spots, and remove excuses that the surveilled individual was merely ‘off camera.’ In other words, Ring is offering a more complete surveillance. And surveillance is a well-known component of domestic abuse.”
In some ways, the Ring drone is like a telepresence robot, where someone can put themselves into your personal, private space from anywhere, with a level of physical agency that’s unique to robots. The potential for abuse of this capability is drastically higher than for a system that can see but can’t move. You can disable Ring’s system by throwing a blanket or something over it, and shutting doors will keep it out, but there is no reason why you should find yourself in that kind of situation in your own home.
Ring, and its parent company Amazon, also don’t have the greatest track record on security and privacy. And it’s not just keeping your data safe from hackers: Ring specifically has cultivated close ties with law enforcement. As this July article from the EFF points out, “with a warrant, police could also circumvent the device’s owner and get footage straight from Amazon, even if the owner denied the police.” The EFF is talking about the Ring doorbell camera here, but it’s not clear to me that the Ring drone would be an exception.
The Ring drone can also give Amazon even more opportunities to collect data about you, now from a mobile platform that can move around inside of your house and even look out your windows. “It helps Amazon build your digital twin,” says Julie Carpenter, a research fellow in the Ethics + Emerging Sciences Group at California Polytechnic State University, in San Luis Obispo. “They’re using this type of consumer data to create a database version of who you are, and then using it to sell you things. The data collected is increasingly invasive, as with the Ring drone capabilities, such as mapping your home and collecting audio and dynamic aerial video of you and your family in your bedrooms, bathrooms, everywhere you live.”
Opening up your home to internet-connected cameras is already a privacy compromise. Many people find that compromise to be worth it for the security and peace of mind that these systems offer. When we look at the advantages that you’d get from buying Ring’s drone over fixed cameras, though, the additional privacy risks that come with an autonomous mobile camera seem hard to justify. The technology is certainly impressive, and the idea of an autonomous indoor security drone is, as I’m sure Ring well knows, very cool. But is it worth $250, questionably better security versus cheap static cameras, and a much larger potential for misuse or abuse? I’m not convinced.