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Occupy the Airspace: Surveillance Drones for the 99 Percent

Who's drone? Our drone!
Who's drone? Our drone!

At many points in the last two months, Occupy Wall Street's relationship with the New York Police Department has felt like an urban guerilla war, with skirmishes flaring up block by block across Lower Manhattan and particularly contentious conflicts -- the Taking of the Brooklyn Bridge, the Raid on Liberty Square -- taking on the emblematic status of historic battles.

The weapon of choice for both sides hasn't been the automatic rifle or the RPG launcher, but rather the video camera. Protest actions invariably feature the peculiar scene of NYPD TARU cops pointing digital video cameras at crowds of protesters that are themselves bristling with video cameras pointed right back at the cops.

The ubiquity of cameras among the protesters have led to some major victories in the field of public opinion, but Bloomberg's army has always maintained the advantage of air power. While the NYPD fields multiple helicopters to cover Occupy Wall Street actions, they were able to restrict coverage of the Zuccotti Park eviction by blocking ground-based media from the site and even persuading a CBS helicopter to leave the airspace.

But the balance of power may be about to shift: The occupiers just got their own surveillance drone.

Tim Pool, whose indefatigable live-streaming of the movement has already made him one of the best sources of information about Occupy Wall Street, announced this week on Twitter that he was about to start testing a drone.

Occupy the Airspace: Surveillance Drones for the 99 Percent

The drone comes courtesy of Mike Brown, an artist-in-residence at Better Farm in upstate New York. Brown told us he recently came into some money from his uncle.

"My mom's side of the family are all journalists and editors and things like that, so I wanted to do something that would honor that," Brown said.

After closely following the Occupy Wall Street movement, and the media blackout surrounding its eviction, Brown decided that the citizen-journalists covering the movement needed more resources. Just what shape his contribution would take became clear after he saw this remarkable footage of a Polish protest taken from a civilian drone.

Brown bought several Parrot AR 300 drones, and gave one to Pool.

"Part of it is you need to get this footage, because the corporate media doesn't cover this stuff properly, and those who do are getting corralled and manipulated by the police," Brown says. "But there's a greater value to the drones: it's a symbol of people power. Air technology is traditionally a sign of the military dominance of more developed countries. But with these drones, we're saying the people are in this space too."

The Parrots, available for $300 from Amazon, come equipped with their own cameras and can be run off an iPhone or iPad.

In their out-of-the-box configuration, the drones aren't equipped to stream video, but there's a substantial online drone-hacking community devoted to overcoming this and other limitations.

From a regulatory perspective, they're classified as toys, and as long as they stay under 400 feet they're FAA compliant. Local regulations may be a different story. Brown says he isn't necessarily worried about breaking the law, as long as the drones are used in a safe, ethical and transparent manner. To that end, he's opened an online conversation about what sort of guidelines ought to govern use of the Occucopters.

Pool's drone hasn't seen action yet -- software glitches and rain kept the Parrot grounded during testing earlier this week -- but Brown is already thinking of next steps.

"I think in the long run, we may be better off with balloon-based technology," he says. "You don't have battery issues, it's safer coming down, and especially when you're talking about something fixed like an occupation, you don't need the mobility of a drone."

[npinto@villagevoice.com] [@macfathom]

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