The Drone Wars


With the recent flack about the Obama administrations leaked memo regarding drones being used in the United States by our government, I wanted to tackle the issue as it has been on my mind for quite some time before the story broke and even more so now  since the story broke. I guess my biggest question would be “is this a surprise”?  In a world increasingly caught on video we are entering a new world of surveillance. One more reminiscent of George Orwell’s “1984” or if you want to be more current, Suzanne Collins “The Hunger Games”.  This world has now taken to the air. During the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, drones were our little robotic hero’s in the sky as they patrolled the rugged mountains of Afghanistan.  Mountains that historically have been impenetrable by opposing armies.  But history has shown us often devices originally targeted for military use have a way of making their way back into the consumer mainstream.  However these new devices challenge our civil liberties in a way we had only imagined in film.  The Big brother scenarios  thought to be  far away, now seems much closer than it ever has since the fall of communism.

There have been helicopters flying over my house since my wife and I bought our home 17 years ago.  Sometimes literally over the house at 6am monitoring traffic over Interstate-5.  Unfortunately all too often.  The good news is there is a lot of movement a front to allow drones into air space  previously reserved for piloted aircraft.  According to some reports this could happen as early as 2015.  This means that my morning traffic report can be provided via these small drones that do not make nearly as much noise as their aging helicopter counterparts.  They would be controlled by some person in a remote room miles away from my house.  The individual would be just like a kid playing a video game.  This of course would be just one example of utilizing a small drone to handle work previously handled via a manual operation.  There would be ample opportunity to survey, take pictures, film etc in ways that have not been possible before.  Someone lost on a hike in the forest in the Cascades?  Drones could cover a vast amount of territory in ways that never could be done before.

Law enforcement will change as well.  Those cars that like to show off their muscle going 100 mph…see you in court and bring your wallet.  Holed up in a house with a young child as a kidnap victim?   Like the pirates off the coast of Somalia, be careful, your head might get blown up.  Night Goggles…no need, Police will have night drones.  This could be a huge benefit to underfunded and overworked police officers.  It could have the same benefits to local law enforcement that it has had to the Department of Defense in the mountains of Afghanistan.  Not to mention looking for drug facilities in remote parts of the US.  The ability to find and shut down meth labs.  There are already cities having to address this issue.   In Seattle the police department was forced by the city council to return drones it had purchased.  Many members were uncomfortable with the idea of video surveillance in the air.  Unlike traffic lights this, in the minds of the council, the Police department had crossed the line, without consulting them first.  Other cities like Miami and Houston have acquired drones.  There use however has been under fire.  Civil Liberties Unions are already starting a grassroots movement to try to get this issue more towards the forefront of the American conscience.

In the Obama administrations memo the fear is that Al-Qaeda, once feared and targeted only on foreign soil, could now be feared and targeted on US soil.  If you stop and pause and think about that, what that means fundamentally, is a drone in the sky carrying weapons.  Is that much different from today?  Yes we do have police helicopters in the sky.  Are they armed with guns and missiles?  Could be.  But as I have outlined above for all the benefits of technology there could be and will be a cost.  These type of capabilities could be and will be abused.  The irony is some people may hate their government, but the government is not the only one enabling this; Silicon Valley is.  Our academic institutions are enabling this.  We are at the beginning of the robotics revolution. The FAA already estimates there could be 30,000 drones in the air by 2020, but is that too conservative?  You can actually get some interesting information on this topic at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International website (yes..apparently there is such an organization).  Go to the useful links section and you can spend the better part of a month reading about the topic.

The frightening thing is we could be evolving to a society where we are all under surveillance 24/7.  Who has not received a traffic ticket by camera? If you have not, you are probably in the minority.  But those are just camera’s attached to the traffic light.  Now imagine they are in the sky with video and radar.  They are mobile, not stationary.   Nothing says they need to be limited to flight.  They also continually are getting smaller.  We could enter an era where it will be difficult to differentiate between the insects and the drones.    The smallest drone today is the Raven, which measures about 3 feet in length, but researchers are hard at work at making drones that’s motions would be mimicking insect wings, so you get the idea of where this is headed.  Like Moor’s law where microprocessors double in speed every 18 months, Hans’ law says drones shrink in size by half every 18 months.

Can you regulate all this?  Can the law move as fast as the technology advances?  This will be a big challenge to both the federal government and state governments.  At the center of the debate is what is useful about drones and what is not useful about drones.  They can help find criminals.  They can do traffic reports.  They can do surveillance of the land for farmers.  They can do a lot of good stuff for society.  The challenge  as was mentioned in the previous paragraph was when doing all this surveillance what else do they capture and what happens to that data?  Where is the data held? Who owns the data?  Am I as an individual entitled to know?  There are a lot of unanswered questions.  This is just at the state and federal level.  What about international laws?  International espionage is undergoing fundamental change with these technology advances, pretty soon foreign competitors will not have to be on the wire to get at sensitive data, when they can simply launch a few thousand insect drones.  How do you stop those crossing borders?

Technology has become unbound from physical constraints   No longer tied to the mainframe or PC, not even by the wires that make up the internet.  Thanks to the wireless revolution we will have a range of stationary and mobile devices performing a wide range of tasks that used to be constrained to science fiction.  The air will be lit up with flying devices ranging in all forms and in all sizes.  Some we ill see but others will be nearly invisible to us, capturing information of our daily lives, no matter how mundane and insignificant it may be.  We may fight these intrusions in our courts.  We will fight with bright woman and men clad in the highest of quality of suits.  Perhaps in a fight of futility.  The war of the drones is upon us, where it will lead and what the benefits and consequences are,only the future knows.

Good Night and Good Luck

Hans Henrik Hoffmann  March 2, 2013

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