Droning On Towards A Date With Destiny?

Have you been watching the skies? I have. As the US expands its unmanned air force, and the UK plans its drone-swarm tactics, researchers are testing and demonstrating autonomous drones — ones that could “hunt, identify and kill the enemy based on calculations made by software, not decisions made by humans.” (According to the author of the wonderfully-titled Army-funded study Governing Lethal Behavior in Autonomous Robots, “Lethal autonomy is inevitable.”) Philosophers are penning learned monographs on the ethics of drone warfare. Universities are beginning to offer degrees in unmanned autonomous vehicle design.

The US Air Force is even developing an unmanned “counter tunnel robotics.” system. Yes, that’s right, the Air Force. Which gives us this immortal quote in the linked article: “…there is perhaps also an indication here that a conceptual revolution is underway within the Air Force, where the earth itself—geological space—is seen as merely a thicker version of the sky.”

Truly, we are entering the Age of Drones. Unfortunately, the governments, militaries, and philosophers leading us there appear to be suffering from a catastrophic failure of imagination. Only nation-states wield drones as weapons right now: therefore, they seem to reason, only nation-states will ever have weaponized drones, forever and ever amen.

But in the real world, other researchers are developing hacking drones that “could build a wireless botnet or track someone via cell phone” (conceivably “even when it’s not being used to make a call.”) Meanwhile, from Chris Anderson’s DIYDrones site, I give you the awesome Dehogaflier thermal-vision pig hunter, aka: “We now have our very own predator drone”:

(This may spark memories of my previous post on the subject.)

The same university now granting UAV degrees is also perfecting drones built by 3D printers. (See also: is printing a gun the same as buying a gun?) The Parrot AR, aka the Altair 8800 of the drone world, can be controlled via a free Android or iOS app, as can Spheros. We haven’t quite gotten to hobbyist autonomous drones yet, as far as I know, but it’s only a matter of time, probably measured in months. And then it’s only a matter of time until someone packs a drone full of Semtex and a detonator, and sends it to the GPS coordinates of the home or headquarters of someone they really don’t like.

I don’t mean to be alarmist. I’m certainly not suggesting that anyone try to ban or even regulate drone technology or DIY drones. For one thing, that particular genie has long since escaped its bottle; for another, I think they’re both very cool and ultimately incredibly useful. But I’d like to see The People In Charge at least thinking about what we’re going to need to do when drone weaponry is no longer the exclusive plaything of nation-states.

UAVs, more than any technology, have the potential to entirely decouple criminals from their crimes. How do you stop mostly-3D-printed kamikaze drones from wreaking havoc? How do you even track them back to their sender(s)? I’m not pretending that I have the answers, but it worries me greatly that I hardly see anyone else asking these questions — because I think they’re going to become extremely important a lot faster than most people realize.