If the epoch of a technology is signaled by the simultaneous appearance of new potential uses and looming ethical questions, then without a doubt we’ve entered the age of the drone. In mid-October, individuals from the drone industry, aviation policymakers, lawyers, engineers, makers, activists, and artists gathered at the first Drone and Aerial Robotics Conference (DARC) in New York City to draw together the swarm of questions and possibilities that this technology engenders.
Defining “drone” is no small part of the problem. Those who work in the industry shy away from the “d-word for many reasons, not least of which is the image of the “drone strike.” The US government is using the more innocuous acronyms of UAV (unmanned/unpiloted aerial vehicle) or RPA (remotely piloted aircraft) to simply evoke the technology’s long-accepted use as surveillance tools—with which to guide other weapon strikes. But an acronym makes for crappy branding, and it seems the word drone is here to stay.
And yet, we’re not any closer to defining wh
hat a drone is. A drone is a quadcopter that fits in the palm of your hand. It’s a massive flying wing, rigged with solar panels so that it can orbit the atmosphere continuously. It is the Mars rover Curiosity, it is a Roomba, it is a driverless car. It is the mapping software running on your flying machine, or it is the smart phone that is used to control it. A drone is all of these, and a drone is the collection of social issues that accompany these technologies, as autonomous algorithms, ubiquitous surveillance, and flying weapons make their way into our cities and skies, changing our way of life for good.
When you bring together all the people who have a stake in this definition, you get a very interesting conversation, but not a very coherent answer. Throughout the talks and sessions of DARC, it became clear that each set of interests has a different idea of what drones mean, and there is not a lot of common ground between them.
For example, Michael Toscano, the head of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (UAVSI), what some might call the “drone lobby,” views drone problems as a marketing issue. “Predators are what people think of when they hear the word drone,” he said during his talk. In his view, safety and privacy are the two biggest issues facing the industry—but from the perspective of perception. His solution is to focus on shifting the discourse around drones so that the public stops thinking of Predators and instead visualizes the safety and security of machinery. He didn’t mention how drones would actually be used to further privacy and safety, other than the often-repeated caricature of drones as a “humanitarian and policing tool,” with no case studies to back up that assertion.
On the other hand, you have Code Pink and other allied anti-war protesters, who turned out to heckle Toscano and to educate conference attendees about the drone strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and other countries, those acknowledged by the US military and those not. Drones, to them, are just another “symptom” of the military-industrial complex, and in this way, a potent symbol for their anti-war protest campaigns. However, their passion was not shared by the engineers at the conference, who simply view their drone-related projects as part of the much wider commercial aerospace industry.