Op-Ed: Drones will be the technological battleground of the decade
The last decade was all about the web. The Internet itself used to be a scientific dream; to transmit data and messages from one computer to the next, and share information, until it became what it is today. Billions of people are now online using the technologies we pioneered in the last century for business transactions, entertainment, communication, and all sorts of things that were not possible before.
Few would argue against the fact that the Internet is transforming modern life, allowing us to have access to an unlimited amount of information, while being able to instantly communicate through long distances.. This in turn sparked new movements and groups, allowing ideas to flow between people in a far easier way than before. At least, that’s the philosophical view of the Internet.
Of course, in reality, not everyone uses the web to consume legally provided content, or talk to their family and friends about topics that any American would be proud of speaking about in public. This same technology allowed underground sites to distribute Hollywood movies and music illegally at an unprecedented rate. Any group who opposes a government or organization can instantly get together and share rebellious thoughts. And those who want to harm others can plan their crimes using the anonymity provided by these very protocols.
As a result, there is rarely a month goes by without some report about cyber espionage, web sites being breached and user information stolen, criminal organizations releasing new attack tools, botnets reaching new heights, or Washington lobbyists pushing for new laws to protect intellectual properties while brushing away our rights. The government implemented spying networks, able to collect, analyze and store emails in real time. Backdoors have now become a common source of worry in networking equipment, and special cyber squads were invented to try and hack into the enemy systems before they could get into ours.
The Internet has become a battleground in more ways than one, and both the “good guys” and “bad guys” are fighting virtually regardless of which side you deem good or bad. Now, we’re about to see the whole process repeat itself in a completely different yet parallel way with the use of drones. To understand where we are, it is vital to know how we got here.
Drones are hardly new technology, just like the web was not new in 2000. However, just like with the dot com bubble of the early 21stcentury, drones are now entering the spotlight because they are no longer a scientist’s toy or experiments of what the future could be like. Drones are now here in a big way, causing many privacy concerns among citizens. In the military alone, some estimates show that the US Air Force will be training more drone pilots than actual pilots this year. Their experience shows that it only takes 6 months for a new recruit to be able to pilot the biggest armed drones out there, and they do a better job at it if they have no previous piloting experience – meaning anyone off the street could learn the needed skills.
Quadcopters have now become the preferred type of civilian RC drones because they are trivial to control, much more stable, and have a much greater ability to be expanded. One of these expansions is the ability to turn them into fully automated systems using open source code. This means that unlike a remotely controlled device, an Arducopter can be created with around $500 worth of gear and they provide the same piloting abilities as the military drones do, minus the weapons, of course.
You can input GPS coordinates and tell them exactly where to go, what to do once there, what height to stay at and whether they should hover in place, with a precision of just a few feet. Along with a good battery and a high resolution camera, you could have an inexpensive drone roaming a city and taking photos from any angle in the sky.
The possible uses are truly endless. From news gathering of events, to the monitoring of crops in farms as well as surveillance, drones are being applied to new uses all the time. Quadcopters are now being sold in a size that fits in the palm of your hand, making the mention “like a fly on the wall” into a plausible scenario. Corporate meeting rooms beware!
So is anyone surprised that the government is literally in panic mode? Several states and local governments have been scrambling to tackle this issue. The irony is that the argument politicians used in the past decade were that new laws had to be passed in order to stop criminals and protect us against things such as child pornography, even if it meant less personal privacy. This time, however, the arguments are the complete opposite.
A new bill in New Hampshire would ban aerial photography from drones or any type of flying device, unless you’re its government-sanctioned, citing privacy concerns. Meanwhile, the town of Charlottesville, Virginia banned the purchase of drones for two years for local authorities, again citing privacy concerns. Of course, we already know that the federal government makes extensive use of drones. They are not only used in foreign countries to spy on enemies and, but the US Customs and Border Protection agency uses drones on the Canadian and Mexican borders as well. Here we’re talking about full-on predator unmanned vehicles, able to carry missiles, not simple quadcopters.
In many ways, what we see happening now with drones reflect what happened with the web. We have military technology that was developed to help wage wars get into civilian hands who then broaden the uses of this same technology. This quickly gets followed by governments and spying agencies attempting to keep control of the situation, and making an even greater use of that same technology in order to do that.
So the question is, now that we know what the online landscape is, a decade after the real cyber battles started, what will our airspace look like in 10 years? It highly depends on what happens in the coming years, and what we do about it. The reason why online spying programs are allowed to exist is because of early laws that were passed to allow such a thing.
We can talk about the PATRIOT Act, which was voted on almost unanimously in 2001, yet turned out to be one of the most devastating laws for those who enjoy online privacy. This act allowed NSA, FBI and other US authorities to expand all of their spying programs, and gave them much broader rights than they used to have.
Now we have two different futures in front of us when it comes to drones. In one scenario, we have a heavy use of military and law enforcement drones in order to watch our every moves. Thanks to a new camera technology called ARGUS, authorities already have the ability to use a single drone to monitor a very large area, with the ability to zoom in and see individual people thanks to a network of tiny cameras used in unison.
Just recently, we learned that 34 US colleges have asked for permission to use unmanned drones to provide a full time air-based surveillance of dorms and buildings to catch any potential criminal activity. So if this is already where we are, there is no doubt a decade from now surveillance drones will be everywhere, and the idea that any of us would have a camera pointed at us from high in the sky the instant we step outside will not be foreign.
Meanwhile, as mentioned before, laws are starting to be written to prevent civilians from using drones. In a typical governmental fashion, the authorities know best, and control can only be guaranteed if the same activity is prohibited to normal citizens. Yet, as we’ve seen with the war on drugs, illegal guns, or of course cyber-attacks, laws do not prevent criminals from doing what they want. The technology is out there and it is not going back in Pandora’s box.
Already, we’ve seen one case of a drone forced to land in hostile territory and being captured by potential enemies. If someone is flying a helicopter to provide surveillance from high in the air, it would be pretty hard for someone to take control of it. But an unmanned drone could get hijacked and used for a number of purposes, from spying to crashing it somewhere else.
Still, it’s not like anyone will argue the skies should be wide open for everybody to use. We have the FAA monitoring planes to ensure security, and when the sky is filled with drones, civilians or not, then obviously, the last thing anyone would want is a mid-air collision, or drones being used for criminal purposes. There should be regulations, but those regulations should be reasonable, and they should apply to both civilian drones and those of the authorities.
From a technology standpoint, it’s hard to say what the typical drone of 2020 will look like, but just think what the web was like a decade ago. We had no iPhone, which means the mobile web was all but nonexistent. Google was just beginning and no one knew what Facebook or Twitter was. Most of us had dialup or low speed cable modems, and e-commerce was a concept only hip Silicon Valley startups really believed in.
Things have changed so much in 10 years that we can expect unmanned vehicles to be completely different in a decade. Research is still going at full speed on quadcopters and drones, and already these devices can do amazing acrobacies. While right now most drones allow you to set GPS waypoints and navigate terrain to go to specific locations, the military is working on technology that would allow their drones to take decisions based on unplanned events. It won’t be that long before unmanned vehicles are able to stay for hours in the air, monitor for specific actions, and then act.
So this is where the technology stands, and these are the types of laws people came up with so far. We are still in the early days, and things will only grow exponentially from here. The question that remains is what that future will be like. Are drones going to get to a point where the government decides that nobody can have them unless they are registered, tracked and monitored, or will it be a free market for drone, where people can do things such as protect their homes from burglars? The technology is limitless, what might limit us is what we do with it, and what we allow the government to regulate.