Drones (unmanned flying vehicles), are becoming very routine equipment in warfare. They are also making market impacts in policing and sports. I first encountered them in 1981 when I started work in missile design. It was obvious even back then that we couldn’t go on using planes with people on board, if only because they are so easy to shoot down. People can’t withstand very high g forces so planes can’t be as agile as missiles. However, most of the drones used in war so far are not especially agile. This is mainly possible because the enemies they are used against are technologically relatively primitive. Against an enemy with a decent defence system, such as Russians or Chinese, or in another European war, they wouldn’t last so long.
Drones come in many shapes and sizes – large insects, model airplanes, and full size planes. Large ones can carry big missiles and lots of sensors. Small ones can evade detection more easily but can still carry cameras. Some quadcopter variants are being trialled for delivery (e.g. Amazon), and already are popular as toys or for hobbies.
As miniaturisation continues, we will see some that take the shape of clouds too. A swarm of tiny drones could use swarming algorithms to stay together and use very short range comms to act as a single autonomous entity. Rapid dispersal mechanisms could make clouds almost immune to current defence systems too. Tiny drones can’t carry large payloads, but they can carry detectors to identify potential targets, processors to analyse data and comms devices to communicate with remote controllers, and lasers that can mark out confirmed targets for larger drones or missiles so can still be part of a powerful weapon system. The ethics of using remote machines to wage war are finally being discussed at length and in some depth. Personally, I have fewer problems with that than many people. I see it as a natural progression from the first use of a bone or stick to hit someone. A drone isn’t so different from throwing stones. Nobody yet expects machines to be used up to the point of annihilation of an enemy. Once the machines have run their course, people will still end up in face to face combat with each other before surrender comes.
The large military drones carrying missiles may be purely battlefield technology, but we shouldn’t underestimate what could be done with tiny drones. Tiny drones can be very cheap, so there could be a lot of them. Think about it. We have all experienced barbecues ruined by wasps. Wasp sized drones that carry stings or other chemical or biological warfare delivery would be just as irritating and potentially much more lethal, and if they have cloud based image recognition and navigation, there is much that could be done using swarms of them. With self organisation, insect-sized drones could come at a target from lots of directions, making detection almost impossible until the last second. This could become a perfect technology for strategic assassination and terrorism, as well as gang warfare. Tiny drones could eventually be a more dangerous prospect than the large ones making headlines now.
In the UK, non-military drones are being licensed too. The emergency services, utilities and some sport clubs are among the first given licenses. There will be many more. Many companies will want to use them for all sort of reasons. Our skies will soon always have a drone somewhere in the field of view, probably lots eventually. If we were confident hat they would only ever be used for the purpose registered, and that the registration authorities would be supremely competent and informed about risks, then objections would be more about potential noise than invasiveness, but we can be certain that there will be gaping holes in registration competence and misuse of drones once registered. There will also inevitably be illegal use of unregistered drones
This raises strong concerns about privacy, corporate, local government and state surveillance, criminality, heavy handed policing and even state oppression. During the day, you could be being filmed or photographed by lots of airborne cameras and during the night by others using infrared cameras or millimetre wave imaging. Correlation of images with signals from mobile phones and tablets or often even face recognition could tell the viewers who is who, and the pictures could sometimes be cross referenced with those from ground based cameras to provide a full 3d view.
The potential use of drones in crime detection is obvious, but so is the potential for misuse. We recently heard disturbing figures from police chiefs about the levels of misuse of the police uniform, data and equipment, even links to criminal gangs. Amplifying the power available to police without cracking down on misuse would be unhelpful. The last thing we need is criminal gangs with under-the-table access to police quality surveillance drones! But even the drones owned by utilities will need good cameras, and some will have other kinds of sensors. Most will have more power than they need to fly so will be able to carry additional sensor equipment that may have been added without authority. Some abuses are inevitable. Privacy is being undermined from other directions already of course, so perhaps this doesn’t make much difference, just adding another layer of privacy erosion on several that are already established. But there is something about extra video surveillance from the sky that makes it more intrusive. It makes it much harder to hide, and the smaller the drones become, the harder it will get. The fly on the wall could be a spy. The argument that ‘if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear’ holds no merit at all.
Drones are already making headlines, but so far we have only seen their very earliest manifestations. Future headlines will get far more scary.