Shane Harris of Reason.com comments on the perils and promises of the coming drone revolution.
Most drones don’t kill. Instead, they like to watch. We usually think of the small, unmanned aerial vehicles in terms of grainy overhead shots of desert explosions, but less than 5 percent of the U.S. overseas drone arsenal consists of those lethal Predators and Reapers. The remainder are mostly Peeping Toms engaged in overhead reconnaissance and surveillance.
The military is planning for a future that relies more on drones than it does on manned planes. The next generation of jet fighters may be the last one with human beings in the cockpit. The next model of surveillance aircraft is already being designed as “pilot optional.”Drones particularly like to shoot video. Thousands upon thousands of hours of it, most of which will never be viewed by human eyes. The National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, which analyzes much of the military’s drone footage, has more than 416,000 hours’ worth of it in digital storage, with more added all the time.
But the military’s insatiable appetite for robot planes is no match for the market in domestic drones that’s poised for takeoff. A drone revolution is coming, and in only a few short years you’ll be able to look up and see it with your own eyes. In fact, you won’t be able to miss it. And it won’t be able to miss you.
Drones will take flight in a host of commercial industries, from agriculture to logistics. They’ll be deployed by SWAT teams, border patrol agents, and traffic cops. If you can imagine a task being performed right now with a set of human eyes, there’s probably a drone sitting on the runway waiting to do the job. Drones work without pay, don’t eat or sleep, and in the not-too-distant future they may be able to use solar power to stay aloft for hours. And they’ll do most of this work—taking off, gathering intelligence, transmitting signals, landing—entirely on their own.
This technological progress will come at a price. If you thought the debate over drones in combat was intense, wait until their flying eyes are on you around the clock. Profound moral dilemmas about privacy, profit, and autonomous machines await us. You won’t be able to escape the drones’ gaze. But maybe you won’t want to.