The current issue of The Magazine, an excellent e-mag with long-form articles, has a thoughtful piece on domestic drones by Pulitizer Prize winning author Eli Sanders.
The editors introduce it thusly:
We already live in a fishbowl, and we’re getting more gawkers, writes Eli Sanders in his article, “Ground Control,” told in three parts in this issue of The Magazine. Eli explains how crowded it is about to get, with throngs peering in through our glass walls, due to the near-term and long-term growth in the United States of the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or “drones”) by both hobbyists and governmental agencies. The regulatory and legal framework hasn’t kept up. We’re in the infancy of this technology, which soon could be in the hands of every person — or law-enforcement body — who wants it.
This isn’t a blip on the horizon. Rather, surveillance drones are already multiplying at a staggering rate, and are part of an assault on our privacy and anonymity in public and private spaces. The previous debate, still ongoing, has been about personal, commercial, and governmental video monitoring and recording in public spaces and private venues — as well as about facial recognition technology employed alongside.
Drones take this a step further, with the current regulatory framework preventing us from expecting privacy from aerial observation even in our backyard, whether from a nosy neighbor or the police. Understanding the practical, technological, legal, and extralegal shape of our fishbowl is increasingly meaningful to every citizen — in every country. The United States is just the canary in the coal mine due to our early-adopter obsession with technology.
Here's a sample, where I'm quoted:
Calo had heard all of [the] concerns before, and more. “We can be excited about the upside and still try to mitigate the downside,” he told me some weeks before the hearing. “That’s a very human thing — to want and to fear.”
When we talked about his [own] fears, Anderson of DIY Drones told me he had a coincidence related to them that drew him up short not too long ago. “I was on a plane,” he said. “I had my laptop open, and I was programming. I was working on some of our code, and I was looking at some of our swarming algorithms.” Algorithms of this sort allow for multiple drones to act in concert — flying together in formation, for example.
“And then they came to serve the meal,” Anderson continued, “and I had to close the laptop to make room for my tray. And so I opened up the Kindle app on my iPad, and I opened up Daniel Suarez’s Kill Decision.” The book offers a dystopian view on swarming drone technology that ends up with a lot of people dying. “And then I finished my meal, and I close the iPad, and I open up my laptop again, and I start programming the swarming algorithm. And I say, ‘Wait. Is this how it happened?’”
Anderson doesn’t believe that we have the power to create drones that would have truly independent ability to act — there’s no Terminator in his vision of the future. “But even if we could,” he continued, “what should I do differently?”
I replied: Perhaps throw in a foolproof kill switch, like all the students at the competition were required to do for their machines?
“We’re an open-sourced project,” Anderson said. “How do we build in safeguards that someone else couldn’t take out? You can’t do it.”
In any case, there’s a more utopian project that better captures Anderson’s vision. It’s a foam plane his company’s currently designing that weighs “about two pounds, max,” intended for farmers in places like North Dakota. “They wake up in the morning, they unplug it, they throw it out the window, and then they go down to their office and they open up the crop report and they get this shot of what’s going on with the crops,” Anderson explained. “It goes up and down your crop, like a lawnmower. It goes click click click click click, and then all the imagery is uploaded onto a web service, which then stitches it together to make a composite, and then you get a Google Maps–quality image of your crop 10 minutes ago, at super high resolution.”
The Berkeley Peace and Justice Commission might actually like this drone, because it doesn’t take away human jobs. “This job isn’t being done at all,” Anderson said. “You know what it replaces?” he joked. “It replaces putting down twice as much herbicide as you need.”
Both Anderson and I had recently seen Looper, and both of us had noticed the beat-up drone that Emily Blunt’s character uses in the year 2044 to tend her farm’s crops. Anderson particularly loved the way Blunt’s character casually started her drone up and sent it off to work in a quick moment so pedestrian it was entirely missable for the average viewer. “It was just so, sort of, matter of fact,” he said.
That, he hopes, is the future.