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The Reality of Drones in the Public Sphere


The Inevitability of Drones Isn’t as Pronounced as Corporations Would Have You Believe

Konstantine Roccas, Staff Writer

 Amazon and various companies have conceptualized drones that will assist in various tasks such as parcel delivery and crop dusting.

The cost-efficiency of drones indicated by their military application has transferred over to the Corporate World.

Drones are not inevitable: They carry a variety of security and safety concerns that could slow their implementation.

If recent reports are to be believed, you will soon be receiving presents not from Santa down a chimney, but by Amazon post-drones dropping parcels –instead of hellfire missiles- at your doorstep.

For the past four years, unmanned drones have been making waves in the media and public lexicon. With an ever-increasing place in militaries of various developed nations, weaponized drones revolutionized the concept of modern warfare by removing man from immediate danger: by giving the power to neutralize an enemy to someone sitting behind a desktop six thousand miles away.

With the increase in their use in the military and the cost-efficiency they bore, the public has taken a massive interest in the concept of drones whether it’s delivering mail; spraying plants on farms; or cleaning up nuclear spills. You can even use military drones in multiplayer first-person video games.

So with all this public discourse and interest in drones, they are surely an inevitable part of our future right?

Well, maybe not just yet.

The Advent of the Drone

The first modern military drone was arguably used first on February fourth 2002 in Afghanistan’s Paktia province. The target was purportedly Osama Bin Laden, and according to then US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, “a decision was made to fire the hellfire missile. It was fired.”

In perhaps a harbinger of things to come, Osama Bin Laden was not hit. Suspected terrorists weren’t hit either. Instead, the victims of this unmanned aerial attack were local villagers out collecting scrap metal to sell.

Prior to this strike, drones had always been used in a support capacity, which was perhaps an early precursor to the notion of mail-delivery and crop-dusting drones. This strike was the first to be designed as an unmanned ‘kill’ mission, and the first to pick out and neutralize a target from thousands of miles away.

The man who created the Predator Drone and its precedents, Abe Karem, was an engineer who got his start with the Israeli Military: originally set out to create a useful and reliable Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) that was not at risk of crashing. With the creation of the ancestor to the Predator, called Amber, he and his engineering team were able to fly a single UAV for 650 hours without a single crash. Though the contract for these Amber UAV’s was cancelled in 1988, the slow shift to robotic warfare had already begun.

During the Balkan wars of the 1990’s, The Clinton Administration began looking for ways to monitor the conflict. Then CIA chief James Woolsey recalled Karem, who he had met earlier and whom he says is an “entrepreneurial genius and lives to create,” and ordered two drones installed with cameras to be flown over Bosnia and relay information back to the US military in Albania. The engineering modifications necessary to make this possible were those that directly led to the Predator model, which had become so prevalent in the new millennium.

The Cost-Efficiency of Drones and their Transition to the Corporate World

As drone usage became more and more pronounced as the new millennium progressed, strategists, economists and other analysts raved about the cost-efficiency of drones. No longer were people required to risk their lives scouting out a potential target. What used to require hundreds of hours of military training and pricey equipment could now be undertaken by a single drone, controlled by an operator thousands of miles away.

This cost-efficiency is what made drones so attractive to the public, easing its transition from the military sphere. For companies like Amazon, the overhead that could be cleared by eliminating the human factor is extremely attractive to its upper-management. By shifting from a people-powered work force to a robotic one, corporations like Amazon are looking at massive profits.

It’s not just Amazon that has been trumpeting the prospect of a drone-based workforce. Venture Capitalists have been pushing the concept of drones delivering pizza, doing your shopping for you and much more. Likewise, Venture Capital have been serious about investing in the technology, injecting $79 million – more than doubling the investment of 2012 – into various drone manufacturers this year alone. Robotics manufacturers have likewise seen that amount jump to $174 million.

Aside from applications involving delivery and crop-dusting, drone usage has been bandied about by law-enforcement in the United States, with usages ranging from public surveillance to crowd control via tear gas and rubberized bullets.

Put simply, if the venture capitalists, corporations and economics analysts are to be believed, drones filling the roles people have filled for hundreds of years in the near future is a certainty.

Despite the skyrocketing investment in drone technology and their many theoretical usages, there has been little discourse over the potential hazards of drones occupying the skies.

While it’s easy for us to envision little robots dropping parcels at our doorstep, there are a wide range of issues both practical and conceptual that can impede the realization of drone technology on a wider scale. And these hurdles are such that they could stop the propagation of drones before it can even start.

 The Real ‘Cost’ of Drones

While debate over drones has classically been constrained to their ethical usage in the military, their ever-increasing visibility has led to similar questions being asked of public drones.

Perhaps the biggest problem with drones flying over major North American cities is with their tracking systems and their ability to navigate the skyline of major metropolises. It’s one thing to deliver a payload in scarcely populated mountains and deserts, and quite another to avoid the various power lines, commercial aircrafts and more inhabiting any major city. Nobody even bothered to touch the issue of P.O box delivery either.

One engineer interviewed for this piece claims that, “while Amazon claims they are only 5 years away from delivering mail to your doorstep, – strictly from an engineering perspective – the technology to make that possible is still a ways away. There are so many intangibles that I think it’s safe to say that we won’t be seeing them on the scale that is being publicized now.”

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the United States, which governs the usage of aircrafts in the public, has been given a soft deadline of fourth quarter 2015 by the American congress to begin, “safe implementation of the laws and regulation allowing safe integration of civil unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system.”

Aside from the technology itself, questions involving the public consumption of commercially available drones revolve around height lockouts, hacking, or overloaded networks cutting the signal between operator and drone, and much more.

Other than these theoretical problems there is also the issue of human resources. If drones are implemented on the scale sought by Venture Capitalists and Corporations, the human cost would be substantial. Tens of thousands of jobs could be lost to a fleet of drones, and this could resonate in the economy much like the introduction of robotics to the assembly line of car manufacturers did.

But the most unsettling aspect is that such a takeover would have a larger effect on human resources than changes to the auto industry ever did. Instead of car assembly workers being laid off, the introduction of drones could lead to the loss of humanized postal services (as we have begun to see here in Canada), and the loss of employment for pilots, scientific assistants, and heck, even the pizza boys.

As with many innovations, the implementation isn’t as clean cut as we’d like to believe. While these challenges are significant, the thorniest issue has yet to be discussed.

Surveillance: How Drones Will Change the Way We Look at Privacy

When the Americans installed a camera onto their surveillance drone in Bosnia in the 1990’s, they changed the way privacy would be looked at in the new millennium. With significant privacy concerns raised by figures such as Edward Snowden, Julian Assange and his Wikileaks network, privacy has become the defining topic of the decade.

In the last year, allegations of mass surveillance by the NSA and various other organizations such as Microsoft have been making the media rounds. Even World of Warcraft was recently victimized by the NSA. (So hide your battle ostrich when you get the chance!)

With the increasing availability of drones, questions are rightfully being raised over their usage for acquiring private data. Even the FBI is on record saying that, “warrantless drone surveillance is constitutionally permissible.”

With the propagation of drone technology, there is the capacity for increased surveillance of citizens going about their private lives, and it is not just from law-enforcement drones. There is concern that delivery drones could be used to acquire personal information and spending habits as well. Think of it as an ‘Orwellian’ version of Google maps, if Google maps can be anymore Orwellian than it is.

There are significant issues that need to be addressed before the reality and fantasy of drones can be bridged. Yet even though many of these issues are apparent for all to see, why all the hubbub?

Cheap Publicity: How Amazon took Advantage of the Continued Ethical Debate Over Drones for Capital Gain

 As noted above, drones present a major ethical issue for the military and human rights advocates worldwide. While the drone debate traditionally centered on their military use, Amazon decided to capitalize on the popularity of drones to increase publicity right before the apex of the holiday shopping season.

As noted by Business Insider, Amazon carefully timed the release to coincide with the festive season to increase publicity of their brand. With the coverage that it gained in almost all media outlets, the miniscule amount they paid to get the story aired on 60 Minutes increased their exposure exponentially.

This isn’t the first time that drones have been used in marketing stunts either. Sushi joints and beer companies delivering aerial beer to hipster music festivals have all hopped aboard the drone bandwagon for publicity.

The worrying part about all this is that with all these companies diving on the publicity bandwagon, the ethical concerns and arguments regarding military drones have taken a back seat. Even relatively recently, drones have killed innocents attending a wedding in Yemen. And they weren’t expecting any packages from Amazon either.

 Smoke in the Water

 Most companies and analysts are overblown in their drone proclamation. While we may see drones used in law enforcement or surveillance sometime in the next 10 years, the chances of them being commercially available are slim.

Real problems exist in getting drones into the air. While Venture Capital is banking on drones as the next big thing, the reality of it all indicates that there are so many problems in getting these things off the ground that we won’t see them for at least another 15 years. Are they coming? Possibly, but until then they’re nothing but a lightning rod for public discourse and cheap publicity.

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Konstantine Roccas is an observer of local and international affairs and governance, but also writes about anything else that piques his ire. He enjoys a half kilo of Greek yogurt daily. He writes articles, features and opinions for the Arbitrage Magazine. More of his work can be found at myriadtruths.blogspot.ca and he can be followed on Twitter @KosteeRoccas. 

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