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A diagram shows how Amazon’s patented geofencing arrangement would zero in on a potential break-in while screening out a view of the house next door. (Amazon Illustration via USPTO)

Amazon has patented a system for providing home security surveillance as a service, but the real innovation has to do with avoiding surveillance of the home next door.

Just don’t expect to sign up for the service, or freak out over it, anytime soon.

For one thing, Amazon patents lots of ideas that never see the light of day. (Remember Jeff Bezos’ airbag-equipped smartphone?) For another, the newly published patent sprang from an application that was filed four years previously — and Amazon’s strategy for drone operations as well as security services has almost certainly evolved since 2015.

A big roadblock to surveillance drones is that the Federal Aviation Administration is still working out the regulations regarding commercial drone flights in neighborhoods — particularly when the flights are done autonomously, beyond the operator’s line of sight. (Even drone surveillance of industrial facilities such as railyards can spark controversy.)

The patent application, attributed to inventors Kalidas Yeturu and Howard Lee Huddleston Jr., calls for making use of the drones that Amazon is developing for package deliveries. (For what it’s worth, Amazon unveiled its latest drone design earlier this month at the inaugural re:MARS conference in Las Vegas.)

Those drones could be leveraged to perform surveillance duties as secondary tasks before or after making deliveries, the inventors say.

A key point is that the data gathered by the drones’ cameras and sensors would be processed to respect the privacy of those outside a predefined security perimeter. “While gathering surveillance images, or after the surveillance images have been gathered, the geo-fence information may be used to obscure or remove image data referring to objects outside the geo-fence,” the application says.

Such “geo-clipping” could be done through physically constraining the drones’ sensors, or by screening the data during or after image capture.

The drones could be programmed to trigger automated text or phone alerts if the system’s computer-vision algorithms spot something that could be a concern. Those alerts might go to the subscriber, or directly to the authorities.

“For example, if the surveillance event is the determination that a garage door was left open, an alert may be a text message to a user, while if the surveillance event is a fire, an alert may be a text message or telephone call to a security provider or fire department,” the inventors write.

Creating an algorithm that eliminates false alarms while catching honest-to-goodness security problems is likely to be a challenge, but if Amazon ever decides to turn the service into a reality, the company is likely to have the machine-learning chops to do it — as well as the legal staff to sort out all the privacy concerns that are sure to be raised.

In the meantime, Sunflower Labs already offers a drone surveillance system, supplemented by sensor-equipped yard lights that turn themselves on to scare the bad guys away.

Update for 9 a.m. PT June 21: John Tagle, a senior PR manager at Amazon who supports the Prime Air team, sent along this statement about the patent:

“Patents take multiple years to receive and do not necessarily reflect our current product roadmap. We take customer privacy very seriously. Some reports have suggested that this technology would spy or gather data on homes without authorization – to be clear, that’s not what the patent says. The patent clearly states that it would be an opt-in service available to customers who authorize monitoring of their home.”

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