Omair Sarwar works to ensure that image data captured by drones do not pose a risk to our privacy. Over the past three years, he has conducted his research at the Alpen-Adria-Universität Klagenfurt and at the Queen Mary University of London. He aims to conclude his doctoral thesis early next year.
The website of Austro Control, the Austrian aviation authority, includes a download option for an extensive list of those drone owners, who have applied for a flight permit. As a general rule, they are allowed to fly drones up to a height of 150 metres while retaining visual contact. The equipment on board the drones may include cameras. This type of permit is a mandatory prerequisite for launching drones even for most toy-like drones. In his work, Omair Sarwar, doctoral student at the Department of Networked and Embedded Systems at the AAU and at the School of Electronic Engineering & Computer Science at the Queen Mary University of London, strives to establish the (technically secured) protection of the private sphere, which is threatened by the cameras installed on civilian drones. After all: We remain clearly recognisable and identifiable in the images captured from this distance.
“There are algorithms that can detect and recognise if there is a face in the picture. My aim is to protect the identity of the individuals appearing in the picture, while at the same time also ensuring that the photos or videos can still be recorded at the highest possible level of quality”, Sarwar explains. The trick is to blur the faces. Much has already been achieved in this area over the past two decades. However, as Omair Sarwar elaborates, the issue with conventional technologies is this: “Anything that is technically processed to appear blurred, can also be technically manipulated to appear focused.” In other words, the danger lies in the fact that any measure applied to protect privacy can be reversed by technical means, thus rendering faces identifiable. Omair Sarwar has developed his own algorithm, which produces better results: “The solution I propose can withstand those kinds of de-blurring attacks.”
Sarwar has been a doctoral participant in the Erasmus programme since 2015. Most recently, he spent a year at the Queen Mary University of London. He hopes to have completed his work by the end of April 2018. His two supervisors are Bernhard Rinner in Klagenfurt and Andrea Cavallaro in London. Omair Sarwar took the first steps in his career while he was still in his home country of Pakistan: Having completed his Bachelor’s degree in Avionics Engineering at the National University of Science and Technology in Islamabad, he spent two years working in the field of satellite communications research at the National Space Agency of Pakistan. In order to gain a Master’s degree, he travelled to Europe, to work on space technologies at the Luleå University of Technology in Sweden and at the Université Paul Sabatier in Toulouse, France. His doctoral studies followed immediately afterwards.
This eventful career path clearly shows: Sarwar is an avid traveller, and he enjoys moving between many different places: “My level of tolerance has increased significantly: I have become familiar with many new cultures and people, and I have always managed to acclimatize to the local cuisine.” There is a minor downside, as he laughingly admits: “Unfortunately, by moving around like this, I haven’t really been able to improve my German: I coped well with English in Sweden, naturally the same applies to England, and in France I generally didn’t speak much.”
In terms of content, airspace has always been at the forefront during his career, sometimes closer to the Earth, and sometimes further away. In the future, he is determined to reach for the stars: “Drones are a dynamic up-and-coming technology, which will transform many aspects of our shared societal life in the next ten years. Much of what seems entirely utopian today – flying taxis, for instance – is already being tested. New business opportunities are emerging in this environment, and they need to be tapped into.” In doing so, Omair Sarwar wants to remain close to his core subject, privacy, because: “Cameras are a component of most civilian drones. It is my aim to work towards establishing a greater level of regulation and to develop technical solutions.” He has not yet decided whether to pursue his objectives in an academic or an industrial environment. Maybe, he muses, he can find a way to combine both; a position in a company that engages intensively in research, coupled with teaching at a university: “I hope to pass on my enthusiasm for this topic to future generations.” He leaves the question about where he wants to work unanswered: “I’d go anywhere for the right job; one, where I can be part of shaping the future.” When we ask him about the dangers inherent to the deployment of drones, Sarwar tells us: “Every technology has advantages and disadvantages. Our aim should be to reduce the disadvantages. Then everyone can benefit from the technological progress.”