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It was only a matter of time before drones started monitoring signals from mobile devices.

Since early February, several small drones flying around the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles have been determining mobile devices’ locations from Wi-Fi and cellular transmission signals.

They are part of an experiment by Singapore-based location marketing firm Adnear, which has offices around the world. The firm told me that, to its knowledge, this is the first time an adtech company has employed drones to collect wireless data.

The capture does not involve conversations or personally identifiable information, according to director of marketing and research Smriti Kataria. It uses signal strength, cell tower triangulation, and other indicators to determine where the device is, and that information is then used to map the user’s travel patterns.

“Let’s say someone is walking near a coffee shop,” Kataria said by way of example.

The coffee shop may want to offer in-app ads or discount coupons to people who often walk by but don’t enter, as well as to frequent patrons when they are elsewhere. Adnear’s client would be the coffee shop or other retailers who want to entice passersby.

Although this experiment in the Valley is currently testing location-mapping from drones and is not yet used to send ads, Adnear said it currently has over 530 million user profiles covering various Asian markets for its other location-based campaigns.

Normally, Adnear collects these mobile signals on bikes, cars, trains, and, on occasion, stairs. It conducts this ground-based collection so it can readily map the strength of the signals against the nearby towers or Wi-Fi hotspots. Drones, of course, offer better coverage than ground-based methods, and can be used in areas inaccessible by vehicles or foot.

“With drones, it becomes so much easier,” Kitaria told me.

A mobile user needs to have an app open that is transmitting via cellular or Wi-Fi for this mapping to occur. The app does not need to be sending location coordinates.

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The system identifies a given user through the device ID, and the location info is used to flesh out the user’s physical traffic pattern in his profile. Although anonymous, the user is “identified” as a code. The company says that no name, phone number, router ID, or other personally identifiable information is captured, and there is no photography or video.

Kataria told me that “capturing photos [via drone] is something which is scary, and that’s not right.” She added that Adnear has “no need” for photos or videos.

Several drone models are being used in this trial, including the Phantom 2 Vision, and they fly no higher than 500 feet. One operator is assigned to each drone. The trial will continue through this quarter, after which there may be commercial deployments.

Data collection and location mapping is going well so far, she said, but there are issues with drone battery life. The next tests will be in Asia, probably Singapore.

“Very few companies worldwide — and no others in Asia — have a technology” to map locations from these kinds of signals, she said.

Researchers have shown
that drones can readily take the snooping further. Mobile devices are constantly looking for Wi-Fi hotspots, and a drone can emulate a Wi-Fi transceiver and capture all transmissions.

And, while Adnear may not be interested in visual or identifiable information, drone evolution will inevitably include that unless there are clear regulations otherwise.

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