I Have Seen The Future, And Its Sky Is Full Of Eyes

Next Story

Gillmor Gang: Apple’s High Definition Anxiety

Allow me just a little self-congratulatory chest-beating. Four years ago I started writing a near-fiction thriller about the risks of swarms of UAVs in the wrong hands. Everyone I talked to back then (including my agent, alas) thought the subject was implausible, even silly. Well, it’s not like I’m the next Vernor Vinge — it always seemed like a pretty blatantly obvious prediction to me — but I am pleased to see that drones and drone swarms have finally become the flavor of the month.

In the last month, the Stanford Law Review has wrung its hands about the “ethical argument pressed in favor of drone warfare,” while anti-genocide activists have called for the use of “Drones for Human Rights” in Syria and other troubled nations; the UK and France declared a drone alliance; and a new US law compels the FAA to allow police and commercial drones in American airspace, which may lead to “routine aerial surveillance of American life.”

We’ve been reporting on UPenn’s amazing drone-swarm research (great title, John!) and Sandia Labs’s self-guiding bullets, and I’ve been on a drone kick for more than a year. Now John Robb, the author of Brave New War, has taken up the drone cudgel with great enthusiasm: in the last couple of weeks, he’s written about drones as the future of warfare, drone diplomacy, defenses against drones, BattleSwarms, and Francis Fukuyama and the inevitable ban on unlicensed drone technology. Go ahead and take a look: I’ll wait.

Terrified yet? No? C’mon, go back and read some more. Granted, Robb does have an apocalyptic streak, but I’m pretty confident his central thesis is dead-on. Drones, and swarms of them, will be everywhere; they’ll soon change everything about warfare and surveillance; and the recent open-skies FAA mandate will ultimately be rolled back, as governments start trying to extend their “monopoly on violence” into a “monopoly on drones” as well.

Meanwhile, obviously, a lot of people aren’t happy about the notion of police drones

and would rather they be used by the Occupy movement or by livestreaming media.

But the really breathtaking and worrying thing is that all of the above is already yesterday’s news. Tomorrow’s drone swarms will be to today’s clumsy quadricoptors as the MacBook Air is to the Altair 8800. And they’ll be mass-produced. I give you the Harvard Monolithic Bee, insect-sized drones printed — yes, printed — by a team who “have been working for years to build bio-inspired, bee-sized robots that can fly and behave autonomously as a colony.” Want to print (most of) your own drone? Go right ahead.

There’s little doubt that tomorrow’s skies will be stuffed full of eyes. Whose eyes, aimed where, for what purpose, under what control? We don’t know yet. That depends in large part on whatever plans, policies, contingencies and/or regulations we collectively come up with. Unfortunately, it seems that everyone’s still scrambling just to react to last year’s technology. I’ve hardly seen anyone look into the future with the understanding that drone technology is evolving with astonishing speed — and I have a nasty feeling that the powers that be won’t understand just how disruptive that technology might become until we run smack into the rotor blades of the first drone disaster.

Image credit: Bee swarm, doubleagent, Flickr.