Old Drones & New Fears

Drones are in the news a lot these days.  Whether it’s an NGIS proximately drinking and remotely driving his way onto the White House lawn, or reporters unwisely demonstrating the phenomenon that has had French security forces on high alert, drones are here to stay.

If only it were clear what a drone really was.

Originally the term referred to radio controlled targets for fighter pilot practice, developed in the 1930s from World War I prototypes.  Reading the news you might think drones are new, but there aren’t that many people who can remember a time before they existed.

Recently, the term has expanded to include all sorts unmanned aircraft (and sometimes even other unmanned vehicles).  Even the consumer-grade RC helicopters (such as the popular Phantom pictured here) are often called drones, though they are only in the broadest strokes comparable to the now-prototypical military Predator drone.

While the FAA does not attempt the impossible task of taking neat technological toys from thousands of people, they do claim that even the smallest such ‘drones’ are illegal for commercial use.  Taking aerial photographs of properties for sales purposes remains illegal, even if such tasks are easily within the 500 ft, 100 MPH, line-of-sight-only limits of unregulated, hobbyist usage.

By many, the ban seems to be viewed with a combination of contempt and quiet disobedience.  By others, the government is seen as dragging its feet in meeting concerns about safety, privacy, and military use.

With inflexible autopilots or peripheral-vision-impaired remote pilots (as in the near-collision of a German military drone and a passenger aircraft), drones and aircraft are currently a risky mix.  This is the basis of the FAA’s concerns, though they expect to publish the appropriate solutions & guidelines eventually (2017 is the current estimate).

Hobbyist drones are a risk near airports and maybe around the White House, but beyond that the FAA’s crackdown on hobbyist drones seems a little silly.  Most hobbyist drones are light-weight plastic.  Many have pointed to a death in Brooklyn by a remote control helicopter as a demonstration of the danger, but the 40lb multi-foot-long scale-model of a helicopter was hardly representative of the standard hobbyist quadcopters.

Privacy fears have perhaps the greatest relevance to the average person.  It’s certainly true that drones – even hobbyist ‘drones’ – offer aerial photography and video to a much larger section of the population than ever before.  That being said, existing laws already criminalize most imaginable misuse, leaving the issue of enforcement a more important question than that of legal boundaries.  All tools powerful enough to be useful have a dark side, but I am unwilling to pre-emptively restrict a device for which misuse has so far been more imaginary than not, and which has produced quite a few social benefits in terms of culture (videos of fireworks, volcanos, Niagara Falls), disaster relief, and even legal accountability.

The last great fear of drones is the risks of autonomous weapons.  Drones began as military tools, and are increasingly commonplace in military forces around the world.  Popular culture visions of robot armies have, perhaps, not helped.  U.S. drone strikes with well-publicized civilian casualties have certainly not helped, though they remain remote-controlled weapons, not autonomous ones.

But, I fear those who demand a preventative treaty against autonomous weapons systems are already too late.  Like drones, autonomous weapons have existed for far longer than most people suspect.  The Spearfish torpedo has been in use by the United Kingdom since 1992, and can autonomously decide the best place to strike a target.  More importantly, it can choose new targets if it loses track of the initial one for any reason.  It’s described as being capable of classifying, identifying, and attacking targets without human intervention, presumably using a built-in database of shape and acoustic characteristics.  Most articles on military technology are rather more reserved, but there’s no reason to think other torpedoes and missiles don’t have the same technology.  Even man portable anti-tank missiles identify the target vehicle in order to strike at model-specific weak spots the way the Spearfish does.  That’s not quite the level of choosing the target, but the technology is the same.

Instead of hopelessly trying to ban autonomous weapons, we need to make their appropriate use clear, probably within the already existing environment classification of ‘weapons hold’, ‘weapons tight’, and ‘weapons free’.  That last one authorizes soldiers to fire on practically anything that moves, in which situation autonomous weapons could easily avoid being LESS safe to civilians than a soldier.  With that in mind it appears to me that the really critical part is making sure that when an autonomous weapon makes a mistake, human leadership is held responsible.  A massacre with no resignations or court-martial proceedings is a massacre asking to be repeated.

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