An environment group is about to become the first in Australia to deploy surveillance drones to hunt for evidence of animal abuse on private property.
Animal Liberation will operate a drone, equipped with a powerful camera, above free-range egg farms, sheep farms and cattle yards to gather evidence of abuse.
And there appears to be little farmers can do to avoid coming under drone surveillance - flying drones above tree height is legal.
''Our legal advice is that if you're no nearer than 10 metres above ground, and you're not filming in anyone's houses, you can go ahead,'' said Mark Pearson, head of the animal welfare group.
''For example, if an egg producer says that they are free range, it would be helpful to check their claims by filming from above the property. You can gather the evidence, and there's no need to trespass. Or let's say we find a sheep dying from fly strike, we can record the location on a GPS and notify the authorities,'' he said.
The group bought the six-bladed, helicopter-type drone for $14,000 from a commercial supplier, using public donations, and has just completed a training program. Deployment will begin next week, with several farms and businesses earmarked for surveillance.
Farmers were dubious about being watched by drones.
''Many people in rural communities would see this as another attack on their peace of mind and an invasion of their privacy,'' said president of the NSW Farmers Association Fiona Simson.
She said farmers recognised that safe food meant healthy and happy animals. ''NSW Farmers does not condone any acts of animal cruelty and farmers are committed to high animal welfare standards,'' Ms Simson said.
Mr Pearson said the drone would not just be used to gather evidence of illegal cruelty, but would also film some routine, legal farm practices that might upset non-farmers. ''We're not interested in what farmers may be doing in their daily activities, and I completely respect people's privacy,'' he said.
''But there are lots of cases where farming activities cause horrible distress to animals - mulesing being a common example. People are entitled to know and see what's going on. So, even if it is lawful, if we think the public is going to be outraged or if we think they need to be informed, we will show it.''I will be presenting a conference paper on this later in the year.
Another perspective is provided in 'Open Robotics' by Ryan Calo in (2011) 70(3) Maryland Law Review which argues
With millions of home and service robots already on the market, and millions more on the way, robotics is poised to be the next transformative technology. As with personal computers, personal robots are more likely to thrive if they are sufficiently open to third-party contributions of software and hardware. No less than with telephony, cable, computing, and the Internet, an open robotics could foster innovation, spur consumer adoption, and create secondary markets.
But open robots also present the potential for inestimable legal liability, which may lead entrepreneurs and investors to abandon open robots in favor of products with more limited functionality. This possibility flows from a key difference between personal computers and robots. Like PCs, open robots have no set function, run third-party software, and invite modification. But unlike PCs, personal robots are in a position directly to cause physical damage and injury. Thus, norms against suit and expedients to limit liability such as the economic loss doctrine are unlikely to transfer from the PC and consumer software context to that of robotics.
This essay therefore recommends a selective immunity for manufacturers of open robotic platforms for what end users do with these platforms, akin to the immunity enjoyed under federal law by firearms manufacturers and websites. Selective immunity has the potential to preserve the conditions for innovation without compromising incentives for safety. The alternative is to risk being left behind in a key technology by countries with a higher bar to litigation and a serious head start.