US Military Signs Contract to Put Facial Recognition on Drones

Operators will use the tech on small drones to help them with intelligence gathering, reconnaissance, and identifying targets.
U.S. Army photo.

The United States is set to deploy facial recognition technology on drones. The tech, called SAFR, is owned by the company RealNetworks. According to a contract between RealNetworks and the U.S. Air Force, the facial recognition software will be used on small drones as part of special operations missions.

The Air Force paid RealNetworks $729,056 for SAFR. “Through this effort, we will adapt the SAFR facial recognition platform for deployment on an autonomous [small unmanned aircraft system] for special ops, [intelligence, surveillance, and target acquisition] , and other expeditionary use-cases,” the contract said. “This will require integrating the SAFR software with the hardware and software stack of the [small drones], including its onboard compute, communications systems, and remote controller software to enable operation in [disconnected, intermittent, and limited] communications settings, support actionable insight for remote human operators, and open the opportunity for real-time autonomous response by the robot.”

The small drones of the U.S. military are typically not armed. Small UAVs like the RQ-11B Raven are often hand launched by soldiers in the field and used for reconnaissance. This contract does not describe putting facial recognition software on large Predator and Reaper drones that will make decisions about who to assassinate in a war zone. The contract describes a use-case where teams of special operations soldiers use the facial recognition technology on smaller reconnaissance drones during operations in foreign countries.

But the contract did describe a world where sUAS will be used by America’s operators for intelligence and target acquisition. It’s possible this software will be used to identify targets, it’s just that a different human—or machine—will be pulling the trigger. Larger drones identify targets through a combination of high powered cameras and cell phone tracking. They make mistakes all the time.

For years, privacy advocates have been worried about the pairing of facial recognition technology with drone technology. For the most part, the cameras and sensors used for facial recognition have not been of a resolution high enough to work on drones that fly high above people. This contract suggests the technology has improved to a point where that is no longer true.

At a glance, it sounds like using facial recognition software would help the people who operate drones make fewer mistakes. But facial recognition software is also famously faulty and prone to errors, and deploying facial recognition is a step on the path toward fully autonomous drones.