Princeton Students Build Apps Centered on Addressing Privacy Implications of Drone Use

by Oluseyi O. Fasoranti

As drones become more pervasive on college campuses and other locations for a diverse range of applications, discussions on their impact on the security and privacy within communities are beginning to take place. One potential concern, for example, are that some drones can be used to take video footage of private spaces where it is expected that there would be reasonable levels of privacy. Bystanders might also be interested for security reasons in knowing what drones are flying within their airspace, what type of data they are collecting and how this will be retained and shared. 

Dr. Marshini Chetty, a research scholar in the Department of Computer Science, and her students are tackling these issues in the class “These Aren’t the Drones You’re Looking For: Mitigating the Privacy and Security Implications of Drones.” The main theme of the class is to understand the different views and needs of the three key stakeholders in drone use: the operator, the bystander and drone regulator. The students then use this knowledge towards creating user-centered apps that can meet the needs of drone operators or bystanders to ensure that the drones are flown in a safe and secure manner.  

Improving Communication: Drones, Operators and the Community

Students in this class are working on a variety of challenging projects that predict and potentially provide a solution to issues that could arise when drones are used in large numbers in various communities. One such project proposed by Jake Levine, a computer science major at Princeton, involves developing an app to sort out and map flight space. Jake is working on making sure that a drone operator can fly their drone from one point to another without violating any of the drone regulations in place or colliding with a building. Jake posits that by “inputting specific coordinates and parameters into the app an operator can overlay their proposed flight trajectory onto a map and decide what areas are viable flight spaces”. The app will output actual GPS coordinates for the drone to use to decide what would be the best route to take. It is expected that the app would also allow for annotations to make the drone operator aware of “no drone zones,” such as sporting events with large groups of people. 

Aamir Zainulabadeen is working on addressing the communication gap between nonparticipants and the operator. The app being developed would, through a TCP/ICP protocol, allow a bystander to communicate with a drone to identify who is flying the drone. This project poses challenges due to issues with system modification of the drone’s hardware, server and payload to match the requirements needed to communicate with the app. Long-term this app would allow for drones to communicate with other drones, thereby helping with drone traffic. 

Another student, Zachary Buerger, is looking at making an app which would serve as a platform to allow for someone to obtain a drone flight schedule within an area of interest. This will provide bystanders information on who is flying within their airspace and what the purpose is of the drone. The user will also have the opportunity via a function on the app to obtain a live newsfeed about what is going on in their airspace. 

An app like this one but geared towards the operator, proposed by Waqar Islam, allows drone operators to monitor drones during flight. This app allows one to see a list of drones that are flying, who is flying them, why they are flying them, and obtain information on their drone license. The app will also allow an operator to send GPS coordinates from the drone to the app so that the user can obtain information on the active drones, date and time and the distance of the drones from the user. The app updates information based on the timescale required to receive GPS data. 

These apps will allow for members of the Princeton community to be aware of drones flying where they live and work, while providing a platform for the public to feel safe. 

View photos of Dr. Chetty's students testing drones »