You know a technology has become truly pervasive when it makes a fuss in Auchterarder. Last Friday, residents of the douce Perthshire town reported to the police that a flying drone had been seen moving “close to people and buildings”.
A Police Scotland representative noted the current popularity of drones “to film or take photographs”, but urged users “to adhere to existing aviation laws and regulations.”
So nimbyists can now add the buzzing, camera-bearing, mini-copter – along with the quad bike, the T in the Park raver, or the planet-saving wind farm – to the list of items they don’t want in their backyard.
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But drones – or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), in official language – are beginning to make their impression on all of our hearths, everywhere. We know them first, and terrifyingly, from the modern battlefield.
These drones are odd, bulbous-nosed, strangely-winged aircraft, bearing cameras and missiles. They are remotely directed by their human operators in Nevada (and now, recently, Lincolnshire), missioned to conduct “counter-terrorist” activities in the Middle East and Africa. Which means targeting and killing individuals or sites deemed to be a threat to US or UK national security.
Their buzzsaw noise may twitch the curtains in Auchterarder High Street. But in areas of Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan and Somalia, a generation has grown up knowing that the sound of a drone presages death from above.
Afghan women are now weaving motifs of drone planes into their traditional carpets. Pashtun women, composing their traditional “landays” (folk poems), cannot escape the subject. One mother, Chadana, recently wrote: “Nabi was shot down by a drone/May God destroy your sons, America, you murdered my own.”
Over here, we are familiar with the official spokesman who says “precision-targeting” the baddies, taking out from on high the “nodes in their terror network”, is far preferable to losing soldiers’ lives on the battlefield, blundering and bludgeoning towards the same end. We also know the on-the-ground reports that tell another story – of imprecision and collateral damage on children and families, and the spirit of revenge that recruits even more to the anti-Western cause.
Yet even as the term “drone” cannot shake off the dust of war, or the calculus of blood and retribution, we seem to be on the cusp of a new aerial popular culture, of which the disorder in Auchterarder is only a couthy sign.
The same news report notes that father-of-two Nigel Wilson, 42, from Bingham, Nottinghamshire, pleaded guilty last month to nine counts of flying his camera drone over the grounds of Premiership and Champions League games with Arsenal and Liverpool, or London landmarks like Westminster and the Victoria Memorial.
Wilson then uploaded the videos to his YouTube channel, appealing for subscribers. He practised his drone-flying skills in his back garden (though not well enough to prevent his device frightening the police horses at Anfield). Part of Wilson’s £1,800 fine was because he “lost sight” of his own device, which goes against Civil Aviation Authority regulations.
There are Silicon Valley moguls, like the venture capitalist and internet pioneer Marc Andreessen, who would hear this story and start jumping up and down in fury. Look at the appetite for expertise, the entrepreneurship, the sheer enthusiasm of this civilian. Using new technology to push forward the frontiers of entertainment. Don’t let regulation stand in the way of the next wave.
Surveying the bewildering array of everyday uses for off-the-shelf drones, it’s hard not to grant that there is something elemental – what Keynes would call “animal spirits” – being tapped into here. Remember Icarus, anyone?
And as the Scottish band put it, we were indeed promised jetpacks, if not flying cars. In lieu of that future, we have given ourselves flying eyes.
And how they fly. Camera drones slowly scroll over the tip of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. Geeks will thrill at the forest race that allows drone pilots – with their video-specs and hand-held controllers – to recreate the high-speed chase through the Endorian trees in Return of the Jedi.
There is also an extraordinary device called a Lily. You throw it in the air to make it fly, and it then follows a homing device on your wrist, recording your every move at a respectful distance. Cue lots of white-water rapids videos – but also imagine new kinds of documentary in the hands of film-makers.
However, it’s in whose hands civilian drones are placed, and what regulatory visions for their usage we decide upon, that are the vital questions. Yes, it’s initially funny to watch some guy scarify kids and joggers in a park with a quadcopter dressed up as a Halloween ghoul. And who could fault the cheekiness of anti-spying protesters last month, dropping leaflets over a US surveillance centre from their drone?
But the bigger corporate plans give off the stench of hubris. Any urban dweller knows, intuitively, that Amazon’s grand UAV plan (an aerial delivery service, flying drone-assembly kits straight to your home) will ultimately crash into the tarmac.
We can just about cope with the rush and clash of car culture. But add to our street lives another layer of noise and dangerous space (this time, somewhere close above our heads)? And with all that driven by pure commercial competition, according to US (or City of London) shareholder imperatives? I don’t think that’s the spirit of the age.
I can imagine drones being folded into other coming automations we’re grappling with. Try and find the clip of UAVs building a rope bridge by themselves, strong enough for a human to walk across. In 10 or 20 years time, I predict the average building site will be emanating the whirr of blades, not the whistles of wolves.
There is already a strong narrative around the use of civilian drones in gathering environmental and farming data, or assisting disaster relief. We often get the 19th-century Luddites wrong: their response to their own era of radical innovation was that it should always past the test of “beneftting the commonality”. I think we have a deep feeling for this, and that it will apply to civilian drones, as it did with computers and IVF.
But before we gaily skip off into the future, we must be ready for what the legacy of military drones attacks could be, over here as well as over there. In 2009, the Scottish-born disaster expert Vinay Gupta anticipated that what he called the “combat robotics” of the West against the rest could have a terrible blowback.
“The natural counter move to being faced with a robotic military is to strike at vulnerable civilian targets behind it.” wrote Gupta, in order “to make it completely clear that whatever political decision is being implemented, using combat robots is not going to cost only the blood of the oppressed … Creating soldiers which cannot be killed simply forces those who oppose empire to hit civilian targets”.
You don’t need a drone to execute this kind of revenge logic. But I wouldn’t discount their usage either. We are back to the age-old struggle, as to whether we attach the means of our technological invention to the wrong ends – and whether those ends are most wrong when military-based or influenced.
In Scotland, we know this struggle very well. Many have been arguing against Trident, and for a more peace and productivity-oriented use of the engineering and scientific skills they demand, for decades.
But talking and acting peacefully is our ultimate and lasting security, in a tense, networked world where war could easily be as pervasive as work or love. A world where the eye of a drone can potentially level at you through your Perthshire window. Let’s start to think about how we ensure it’s either pest, prankster or paparazzi, and not something much worse.