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Selling surveillance tech in the face of a civil rights movement

Henri Seydoux, the founder of the French drone company Parrot, explains why he's comfortable selling to law enforcement after the George Floyd protests.

The Parrot Anafi USA drone controller

"What Parrot is doing is to sell drones to organizations that have to be ethical," said Henri Seydoux, the company's founder. "But I am nobody to check the ethicality of the police of one city in the U.S. It's not my role."

Photo: Courtesy of Parrot

What would you do with a drone that could spot someone — even in the rain — from over 3 miles away?

French drone maker Parrot is unveiling the latest version of its Anafi drone Tuesday, which is more capable than its predecessor and comes equipped with thermal-imaging cameras and the ability to surveil people 3 miles away. The drone marks Parrot's entrance into the burgeoning enterprise drone market in the U.S. and was originally developed for a government program looking to build small reconnaissance drones for soldiers.

The overwhelming majority of the small-drone market in the U.S. is currently held by Chinese manufacturer DJI, but there's a growing sentiment stemming from the White House that foreign electronics shouldn't be used in favor of American products. The problem is that, in many tech fields, there just aren't that many U.S. companies that can compete. This led Parrot to set up shop in the U.S. to build drones that could deliver what the Army wants. Its new drone is aptly called Anafi USA, as it is assembled in the U.S. using many local parts.

Over its 26-year history, Parrot has often changed with the winds of consumer electronics trends. It's made PDAs, headphones, Bluetooth gadgets for the car, and just about everything in between. But a few years ago, founder Henri Seydoux said he realized that Big Tech had come to dominate the consumer-tech industry. "It is a competition that you cannot win," he said in a recent interview with Protocol, so he decided to pivot the company entirely into making drones, aiming to grab some of the market of companies interested in surveying products but wary of Chinese offerings.

But Anafi USA comes at a time when large parts of the U.S. are rethinking their relationships with law enforcement. After the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, protests around the country have called for police budgets to be slashed, and many people have pushed tech companies to reevaluate their relationships with police departments.

Protocol spoke with Seydoux about his vision for an all-American Anafi drone and his thoughts on selling surveillance technology to law enforcement during this moment in American politics.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What is Anafi USA?

The product we are launching has the name Anafi USA, because the product is manufactured in the U.S. We started 18 months ago when we were contacted by an organization called DIU. This organization was organizing a tender competition to understand if consumer drone makers can follow specifications that the U.S. Army wants to have in their products. I think one of the motivations was that you can buy at a Best Buy or Amazon very capable drones for a few thousands of dollars [that are] close to meet[ing] the specification of what the U.S. Army needs and cost less than the ones directly designed for security organizations in the U.S.

We asked DIU: "Can we put in the market the drone that we are doing?" Removing some of the specific features that are dedicated to the U.S. Army, they gave us permission to do it. It's a drone that has been developed on the Parrot Anafi technology, with some specifications for the U.S. Army, and is manufactured in the USA. It's dedicated to first responders: firefighters, police, coast guard, border patrol, surveyors, this kind of customer.

When you say it was built in the U.S., was it manufactured out of parts built in the U.S. or were parts still sourced from overseas?

It's manufactured in the U.S. Today in the electronic industry, there's a lot of providers, so the main chips are American. The assembly company is American, and the most important part of the design, which is the software, is coming from Parrot — 100% Parrot software plus open source. It's running Linux, and some parts come from various countries.

But nothing from China?

Yes there are some parts coming from China — nonstrategic parts like plastic. The rules of the U.S. Army are very stringent, and the drone follows those.

So why would someone want one?

What the drone brings to the user: a very small device, very easy to use, very fast to deploy — 55 seconds from a backpack to establishing a connection and takeoff. And the drone carries a very capable payload, which is a camera with 32x zoom and a FLIR [thermal imaging] camera. It permits you to see details up to 5 km from where you are. The drone is also robust, can run in the rain and in difficult environments.

We believe, and we already have a customer, that it will be very useful for firefighters. When you have a bushfire, you need to be able to map the zone of the fire. Also, when you have extinguished the fire, you need to map where the hot spots are, and the thermal camera is very useful for this. The drone is very useful for surveyors who manage solar farms, where with the FLIR camera and the zoom camera we've been able to detect centimetric details on the field of solar panels.

A person holding a drone Parrot's new Anafi drone with thermal imaging and long-distance cameras.Photo: Courtesy of Parrot

So for Parrot, this represents a real push into enterprise as well as government work in the U.S.?

Exactly. For Parrot, it's a strong push into enterprise, and also, I think it's a strong validation of the technology we have deployed. What Parrot does is use the technology developed for smartphones — cameras, gyros, GPS, Wi-Fi chips — and we implement using this technology, the hardware of the drone.

Aside from the government, where there's now a desire not to buy Chinese products, is the value proposition in Anafi USA strong enough to take on DJI in the enterprise market?

I think the value proposition is very good, and the level of quality of the optics and the camera we have is better than the competition. But I think also there are some things that are very sensitive. The fact is that we ensure to our customers that no data is leaking from the drone, and it is not possible to change the software by a person [unauthorized] to do it. For example, companies working in the energy sector, companies that are monitoring power lines, monitoring windmills, they don't want to see their data leaking to servers that you don't really know where they are and exactly what data is collected.

Does Parrot hold any data from the drones, or is it all held with the customer?

For Parrot, when you use a drone, you answer a question: Do you want to send some data for debugging and the maintenance of the drone onto Parrot or not? If you say no, we ensure that absolutely no data will be transmitted from the drone to our server.

What data do we collect? It's the same kind of data, for example, you use to test a car. It's very useful to monitor the hundreds of thousands of batteries that we have in usage. And it tells me, too, the quality of the software and to tune better some deep-learning algorithms for some flight parameters.

For the data that you do hold, is that held in your own servers or on third-party servers?

The data that we pull is stored in an Amazon server, which is located in Europe.

When we last spoke, you were still selling headphones and gadgets, and you told me "in high tech, nothing lasts." You were constantly reinventing what the company sold. Since then, you've doubled down on drones at the expense of everything else. What was the rationale for that change?

Because I believe a lot in the potential of the drone market. I think what I was doing was very interesting, but what I have seen in the last 10 years in consumer products, now has moved from startups to large companies. The main actors in IoT devices are Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and even Microsoft. They all have their own products. So, it is a competition that you cannot win. This was the reason I stopped doing creative devices. And I believe drones is a new business, which is linked to robotics, to data collection, which is very different than consumer devices, and one that I believe will be a huge success.

With everything that's going on in the U.S. and around the world with protests for racial equality and police reform, what are your thoughts on selling to police departments right now?

I think this question, you can link it to: Is technology good or bad? Is a technology used by good guys or bad guys? And I think the answer has nothing to [do] with technology. I mean, police, they use cars, they even have T-shirts that are made by the same T-shirt makers. There is nothing that I can do.

So what Parrot is doing is to sell drones to organizations that have to be ethical. But I am nobody to check the ethicality of the police of one city in the U.S. It's not my role. But we sell drones, a modern tool that should be used ethically. For example, we help an organization called Human Rights Watch. We gave them drones to go to Syria and to fly places to count the casualties made by ISIS, or organizations that are supposed to be ISIS. We think it shows that drones can be used for a very good purpose, and we believe this is true for all technology. Unethical persons use computers, unethical persons use cell phones. So it's the same for the drone.

It's hard to do something bad with a T-shirt. But with drones that can see 5 km, that's a level of surveillance we've never really had before. Are there any ethical concerns there?

Unfortunately this is what the technology permits, and, there is, of course, the question: Is a user ethical? If the police use them in a way that is not accepted by the law, there is nothing that I know when I [build] the drone. I hope the same drone will help to save lives, to be used to increase the efficiency of power plants or solar plants.

With all of the uncertainties in the world and the U.S. drone market right now, where do you hope the company will be a year from now?

I believe the move we are doing into commercial drones will succeed. And I believe that the experience we have in consumer goods, that we have manufactured by [the] millions, is the right technology to make robotics. I think what has made the major engine for technology progress has been consumer electronics, including the personal computer, the smartphone, the GoPro cameras. And I think it will be the case for robotics.

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