Drone anxiety

On August 6, 2013, the Town Board in Deer Trail, Colorado, about 55 miles east of Denver, voted on a proposal to establish drone-hunting licenses and to offer $100 bounties for shooting down unmanned aerial vehicles.

It was a provocative act generating chuckles, accolades, a Colbert Report segment, and a stern warning from the FCC that shooting at drones is illegal. The proposal was so controversial within Deer Trail that the board deadlocked at 3-3, setting up a special election in December.

The circus atmosphere of Deer Trail’s proposal belies the complexity of the policy questions, but what I find even more intriguing are the cultural issues.

Military-grade drones have increasingly captured our attention since their first documented use for a targeted assassination in 2002. And while there are some indications that the Pentagon and the CIA may be tempering their use of drones, there’s little reason to think that drones will cease to be a major component of our arsenal.

MQ-1 Predator in flight (DoD photo)

MQ-1 Predator in flight (DoD photo)

I find it interesting and little puzzling, though, that the use of drones for overseas operations has provoked such a domestic backlash. Full-sized military drones aren’t that much different in most respects from conventional combat aircraft. They fly, they release weapons, and people – sometimes including civilians – die. The difference can’t just be their ability to fly unobtrusively, since many of them tend to be both audible and visible (while there are plenty of military aircraft, not to mention spy satellites, that are capable of discretely gathering enormous amounts of high-resolution data). It can’t simply be their ability to carry and fire lethal weapons, since that’s not limited to drones, either.

Despite the similarity with conventional combat aircraft, there is clearly something different about drones and how we use them that provokes such concern from across the political spectrum. I suspect it’s in part their presumed pervasiveness. The disassociation between the killer and the killing (which I think amplifies the sense that the U.S. treats military action like a video game) is often cited (including in this terrific ‘short history of drones’ piece in The Nation).

But I also wonder if the notion – to some extent accurate already – that drones carrying lethal payloads can be designed to act autonomously is at the heart of the anxiety. The idea that an aerial robot armed with missiles could, on its own, based on computer code and on sensor input, decide when to kill, without any human intervention … I think this is truly a terrifying thought for many people.

And it doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to conceive of how such a scenario could go terribly wrong, on an ad-hoc basis or even more systemically. Forgot Skynet becoming self-aware; one well-designed virus or one clever team of hackers and it’s easy to imagine all sorts of devastation (even aside from the ordinary array of drone-caused civilian casualties). Interestingly, one of the arguments in favor of “lethal autonomous robots” is precisely that they are better protected against hacking.

And while we may not need to worry about autonomous Terminator assassins anytime soon, gains in autonomous behavior, learning algorithms, and modular robotics, and truly impressive. One recent favorite are ETH Zurich’s autonomous, self-improving quadrocopters.

On the military drone side, then, I suspect that the fear of autonomous, lethal robots more than anything else may underlie our growing anxiety about drones.

What I find equally interesting is what’s happening on the civilian side of the drone universe. Interest in what was formerly the realm of niche hobbyists – small, radio-controlled model aircraft – has also been exploding. Some of this was the result of technological advances in remote controlled aircraft. Improvements in batteries (size, weight, and capacity) have meant smaller, more agile aircraft that are easier to design and fly (enabling many enthusiasts to sidestep the complexities of liquid fuel entirely, for instance, and requiring much less skill and practice to operate). Advances in unusual designs like quadcopters (as well as improvements in electronic control systems) has resulted in aircraft that are both safer and cheaper to build.


Drone with Go Pro camera attached (Flickr user Don McCullough photo).

Drone with Go Pro camera attached (Flickr user Don McCullough photo).

And the possibilities for small, inexpensive aircraft – formerly called RC model aircraft but increasingly folded into the ‘drone’ label – are apparently limitless. Crop dustingfarmland surveyspost-disaster surveys and photographsdelivering medicine during natural disastersdelivering pizza during football games, and on and on.

Despite their origins in the hobbyist world, and despite that they aren’t designed to carry munitions, domestic drones are getting caught up in the growing drone anxiety just as their military siblings are. We’re seeing this partly through the vernacular … “drone” is increasingly used to refer to any remotely controlled aircraft, whether large or small and whether domestic or military. We’re seeing this on the policy side, as well, with many communities adopting or considering total bans on drones, and many states considering tight restrictions on their use. And the advocacy groups – libertarian, Tea Party, anti-surveillance, the ACLU, and others – their focus isn’t on the potential future lethality of domestic drones so much as it is about their surveillance capabilities.

I don’t think the anxiety about domestic drones is just a conflation with their lethal military siblings. Instead, I suspect it’s the Moore’s Law-driven advances in consumer surveillance technology that has so many people worked up. Powerful, high-resolution cameras are now inexpensive enough to be widely accessibly and lightweight enough to fit on small drones. When combined with innovations in wireless communication technology, remote piloting over longer distances becomes much easier to accomplish. Even more sophisticated sensors, such as Safecast’s Geiger counters for monitoring radioactivity levels around nuclear facilities or waste sites, could easily be attached to inexpensive drones.

If this is right – military drone anxieties fueled by the fear of lethal autonomous robots and domestic drone anxieties fueled by fears of an expanded surveillance state (not to mention the ease with which your neighbors, your business competitors, and your political adversaries can spy on you) – then we may be headed for an enormous policy and political collision. While the proposed Deer Trail bounty (stay tuned: the election is on December 10) may not represent a particularly thoughtful and nuanced approach, it embodies a deep and widely-shared apprehension about the likelihood that drones will become a pervasive, intrusive part of everyday life. Technology always outpaces policy, but in this case the tech may have already lapped the policy a few times, and it might be worthwhile for communities and policymakers to think more seriously about what we want our increasingly drone-infused world to look like.