There is seemingly no end to the potential uses for a nano quadrotor and the technology behind it. The first responders to a crime scene or natural disaster area, for example, may one day be tiny flying robots who relay information to the authorities a safe distance away. That's not to mention carrying out equally dangerous military operations. Meanwhile, huge swarms of quadrotors may eventually be used to perform larger scale construction projects than those already conducted at the GRASP lab [sources: Searles, Owano].
Dr. Vijay Kumar, a University of Pennsylvania professor who helped develop the technology with former students Daniel Mellinger and Alex Kushleyev, has said that the goal of this and similar projects is to determine whether "large numbers of autonomously functioning vehicles" can be "reliably deployed to carry out a prescribed mission," particularly in a potentially hostile environment and possibly with roles that change based on the circumstances [source: SWARMS]. In other words, a nano quadrotor mission could be just about anything under the sun. That type of power raises significant privacy concerns.
Quadrotors are essentially drones, except smarter. Their autonomous swarm behavior means that these flying robots don't have to be programmed individually. Like the covert, hulking and sometimes deadly vehicles that are more frequently occupying airspace around the globe, quadrotors carry with them potential privacy abuses that have moved many American states to limit their domestic use [sources: Searles, Owano].
A law passed in February 2012 paves the way for the Federal Aviation Administration to approve unmanned aircraft for civilian use beginning in 2015. Among other proposed uses, drones are likely to be marketed for tasks as varied as monitoring crops, tracking animal migration and protecting international borders. As the drone technology increases, it's likely to become less costly. At least one developer, China's DJI, is already hocking commercially available, video-camera-ready flying drones, and another is reportedly working on a nano quadrotor with a photo camera on board [sources: Kuruvilla, Ackerman, Svensson].
The fear is that the power of cheap surveillance is one that is likely to corrupt. If nano quadrotors and other drone technology become as widely available as say, iPads, they could be used as spying devices by law enforcement agencies, paparazzi and corporations, as well as any Joe on the street who wants to keep tabs on his neighbors. That's not to mention the personal injury and property damage that an errant drone crash could cause. As a result, federal and state officials in the U.S. are creating policy standards to protect individual privacy and safety concerns while allowing users to tap the significant potential of drone technology. Just like the nano quadrotors themselves, the regulatory field in which they will eventually operate is still a work in progress [sources: Kuruvilla, Svensson].
Author's Note: What is a nano quadrotor?
After writing about the National Security Agency in one recent assignment and drafting a 20-question zombie apocalypse-themed quiz in another, I've developed a skeptic's concern for my personal privacy and a healthy fear of the brain hungry undead. So perhaps it's no surprise that a glimpse at 20 soulless drones humming in perfect formation set me a little on edge. Let's just hope nobody teaches those things how to eat ... or check my e-mail.
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