The Unforeseen Consequences and Untapped Potential of Drones

Part of our Hey! Look at That! Technology series

Drones (or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles – UAVs) are a prime example of what often happens with developing technologies.

  • First, the new technology appears, and the possibilities seem unlimited. Everyone gets excited, money gets invested, manufacturing begins –
  • Then, the new toy on the block fails to deliver. A lot of people involved at this point get disgusted (or go broke) and drop out.
  • Not much later, the kinks get worked out. The technology takes off further than anyone anticipated.

There are exceptions of course. Once upon a time, electricity provided by nuclear power would be “too cheap to meter.” Did not quite work out that way. But the sequence described above is more often the case, and so it is with UAVs.

People think of UAVs in the context of military and law enforcement uses, and that has been much of the use to date. But here again, implications beyond the obvious are important. Two examples:

The Operator: Imagine you are a fighter pilot, engaged in a close in fight, with lives at stake. The tension is palpable, the concentration intense beyond the imagination of others. It goes on for hours. Finally, the mission is over. The pilot lands, debriefs, and joins his comrades to unwind. He or she processes what happened today with others who share the experience.

That’s what happens in a war zone. But the UAV operator steps out of a trailer in the Nevada desert and goes home to the family, picking up milk along the way. Sounds ideal , but it’s not. People doing this live in two completely different worlds, where EVERYTHING is different. Going back and forth like this every 12 hours or so does major phycological damage. The military is sorting out the high PTSD rates among this cadre. The challenge of a moral injury reset every day is formidable.

Much has been (and will be) written about this, but a good start is in a recent NY Times Magazine article. I recommend it:

The Security Risks. There has been much discussion about several UAV issues. Discussions continue about privacy, security from attack, etc.

Less has been written about the very real threats of UAVs to national security. UAVs are comparatively  cheap, with accessible technology. Beyond the simple versions, complexity and capabilities are piling on, around the world. What UAVs will do in intelligence, electronic warfare, weapons and more is sobering.

Imagine a UAV with deadly chemicals, at low altitude launched from cargo ship 20 miles off the coast of Virginia. How long would it take to reach Washington DC and how sure are we that it would spotted and knocked out?

The Washington Post shared a good layout of the risks recently. The author, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielson, is in the news a lot lately for other reasons. But here she raises important points.

There are policy issues she raises that one can disagree with, but the state of our capability is clearly at an imbalance. This guest editorial also provides links to several good sources.

The potential for great good comes with UAVs as well, over and above uses in the military. UAVs are in hurricane research, assessments in natural disasters, and in wildlife protection. On the latter, poaching and the slaughter of animals for horns and other parts is on the rise around the world. This is the Chinese market at work – but I digress.

UAVs are not a panacea. A recent article, cited below, makes clear the tribulations of adapting new technologies. But imagine a scenario like the following:

– International wildlife groups come together. They develop a unified set of protocols, hardware, and software. They coordinate with host governments. They secure outside funding. I predict this could generate the Mother of All Go Fund Me type initiatives.

– Full capacity UAVs are flying at altitude for days, able to detect day or night and in marginal weather. They can record what they see and send it immediately to dispatch rangers. Given the right rules of engagement, they could even fire on poachers caught in the act. A fleet like that could zero out the murderous poaching rates in a short time.

The article I mentioned does a good job of describing why all this comes with challenges. Still, I have no doubt this can happen, as a South African company cited in the article is proving. Check it out.

And we haven’t even started to talk about commercial and other uses of UAVs. Look up, America – the future is flying overhead even as we speak.

Clontz-117tx225pix Bill Clontz

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