Rethinking the game of drones


Every so often, a technology comes along that changes the rules of the game. This is true of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), or what has become a pejorative term for many people: drones.

In war, technology tends to lose its redeeming qualities. Tools becoming weapons is the message endemic in the media, making it easy for the public to get lost in the well-publicized uses and misuses of drones. But not all UAVs kill, and those that do kill often do so with minimal collateral damage. Winning over hearts and minds begins with a reconceptualization of drone potential and application.

In combat scenarios, drones have advantages over manned aircraft. They are cost-effective, able to remain airborne longer and dramatically shrink the window between the identification and elimination of a target. Drones can fly over hostile regions without exposing personnel to the risk of injury, capture or death.

Those benefits aside, the controversy that drones kill civilians still looms. But collateral damage caused by drone strikes may be far less than what is played up in conventional media. In his Feb. 19 Slate article, In Defense of Drones, William Saletan says drones’ hi-tech payloads are actually saving lives, with Afghan civilian casualties having decreased by 46 per cent in 2012 compared to 2011. Drones favour guided missiles over the bombs typical of manned aircraft. As drone strikes have increased and manned strikes have decreased, there have been a far greater number of lives saved from the threat of manned strikes than lives taken by drones. The percentage of civilian casualties in drone-related combat actions by the United States is shockingly low, even when compared to events as recent as Kosovo or the Persian Gulf War.

Saletan writes, “Drones are like laparoscopic surgery: they minimize the entry wound and the risk of infection,” since those heat-of-the-moment decisions by pilots are taken out of the equation.

But combat is only one aspect of drone application. UAVs have the potential to enrich many areas of human interaction with each other and the environment. UAVs can non-invasively monitor animal behaviours and migrations or map and record environmental events such as oil spills, floods, volcanic activity or soil erosion. They have tremendous search and rescue capability, from monitoring fires to searching for lost hikers and skiers.

Drones can also track and record social and political movements. Hacktivists can now go online and build a drone kit. They can capture police brutality or agents provocateurs, reinforcing the empowerment of individuals and small groups. In humanitarian crises, UAVs can also provide communication links to areas with little to no service. The Sentinel Project for Genocide Prevention has already proposed the use of UAVs to track rebel and paramilitary forces’ movements as part of a warning system for at-risk communities prone to ethnic rivalry.

Lastly, UAVs have strong potential for foreign and domestic security applications, from surveillance of narcotrade, warlords and human trafficking to patrolling larger territories to aid in border security. And just as UAVs can protect protestors from police, they can likewise aid police in riot control, allowing them to identify perpetrators for later prosecution.

Moore’s Law states that the number of transistors on a computer chip doubles roughly every two years, increasing the power and efficiency of our computing capabilities. With that in mind, drones’ future is promising. The scope of drone taxonomy is mind-blowing; the stuff of science fiction is now reality. We have gone from Comic-Con to Pentagon, but if we continue to see UAVs s nothing more than killing machines, then perhaps the big picture is outside our peripheral view.