Wasted Potential

I’ve been watching drones for several years now, and since the very beginning I’ve claimed that drones have magnificent potential.  It’s such a simple idea – so simple it can be applied to practically everything.  Drones are a new kind of infrastructure, and infrastructure does to society what new detectors do to science – which is to say anything on the spectrum of nothing to upending everything.

I’ve also claimed from the beginning that whatever the potential might be, it could be ruined by a bad reputation that leaves the technology politically untenable, for all it might be mechanically practical.

Because I’m at my usual level of sarcasm and this is a good place for a Read More break, it’s time for me to say that somebody didn’t get the memo.

Also predictably, that ‘somebody’ is the U.S. government, which, as current Presidential candidates uniformly agree, sure does keep coming up with new ways to disappoint.  The headline is “Pentagon confirms it has used Predator and Reaper spy drones over US airspace” [Warning: article has good details but sporadically opens a pop-up window] or, if you’re Fox, “Pentagon flew drones over US to aid first responders, official says“.

Now, too be fair, there were ‘fewer than 20’ since 2006, and current policy precludes arming them.  Also, to be fair to Fox, several of these flights (of the nine that the DoD thought would be good PR to release some details on) were at the request of FEMA or otherwise designed to assist with humanitarian projects, which is, after all, one of the potentials I hope for out of drones (though FEMA has managed to muck up even that on occasion).  Headlines as positive as Fox’s are far and few between, however.

The obvious explanation for the negativity is that this is the Pentagon managing these flights, and probably by sheer force of habit, that place is being secretive enough for reporters and citizens to assume the worst.  After all, this is the same Department of Defense that operates under an executive branch that has somewhat infamously refused to rule out using armed drones, against U.S. citizens, on U.S. soil.  The deaths of al-Awlaki and his cousin demonstrate the Defense Department (or at least the CIA) certainly doesn’t have any particular compunction about using armed drones against citizens abroad.  The news about these flights hasn’t made the headlines the way al-Awlaki’s death did, but it’s not helping the cause of drones to have the military secretively operate drones overhead, not when drones were already publicized by that same military as tools of assassination and the terrorizing the terrorists.  Not when the FBI is already willing to go the trouble of using manned planes armed with signals intelligence tools over US cities and has begun its own fleet of drones.

Thanks to the war on terror, drones are known primarily for one thing – being weapons.  Thanks to over-blown panics over drones landing on the White House lawn and near-collisions around airports, we’re told they’re all threats that must be registered and rigorously regulated even at even down to the obvious toys.  I say ‘overblown’ because that drone crashing in the White House lawn got as much or more press than the gyrocopter landing with pilot, and despite some near misses (the most dangerous of which were the fault of governments, not hobbyists) birds are still a much more likely threat.

I said at the beginning that the power of drones was in how they could be used for almost anything, but as far as policy is concerned, the government needs to draw a line between here and there, between military drones and civil drones, between the weapons we use against our enemies and the tools we use to help society.  As it is, the government’s example is tainting the broader technology.  Those mere twenty secretive Pentagon flights are squandering potential, building a narrative of distrust in the technology that sets the stage for legal and political penalties that could cost us dozens of future search and rescue flights.

It would be nice if I could think the government’s trade here is worth it.

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